Coaches back annual Pacific double-header
Players and coaches involved in a stunning double-header of closely contested Pacific Tests at Cbus Super Stadium on Saturday say the fixtures are vital to the development of rugby league in the Pacific region.
A much-improved PNG Kumuls side took the fight up to Fiji and almost came over the top before going down 22-10, while a pulsating Test between Samoa and Tonga saw frequent lead changes before Samoa held on to win 18-16 in an absolute nailbiter.
Kumuls coach Mal Meninga stressed the importance of the game to the development of his players.
"I hope [it's an annual fixture], whether it's at Cbus Stadium or other places in the rugby league world. It's a great concept," Meninga said.
"For these guys to play in this type of environment it can only do wonders for their confidence and gives them a real appreciation where they actually stand in the rugby league world when you go into an international match.
"They're getting better all the time and starting to believe in themselves and they watch these players – they watch the Fiji national players play on TV and admire them with awe and now they're playing against them."
Fiji Bati coach Rick Stone also called for the matches to take place every year and said he hoped that, following the footsteps of the PNG Hunters in the Intrust Super Cup, Fiji could add a side of locals to the NSW Cup competition.
"Hopefully this particular game can get established in the calendar and stay for many years to come," Stone said.
"It's a tough balancing act [choosing from NRL players and trying to develop locals] and the space between the local competition in Fiji and even NSW Cup is fairly significant.
"The NSW Cup team they've spoken about in Fiji is a positive step and if we can actually make it into a reality we'd bridge the gap between the two competitions.
"Obviously we'd love to have a few more local resident Fijians in our team but they'd need to be up to the standard as well so that's something we're working on."
Fiji and Sea Eagles centre Brayden Wiliame highlighted the importance of the week to him on a personal level, because it gave him a rare chance to embrace his Fijian heritage.
"Growing up with my mum, she's Australian, so I haven't always been in touch with my Fijian side so it was good to spend the week with everyone and learn a bit about my culture as well," Wiliame told NRL.com.
"It was a great week, with limited time to get together and a fairly new squad and young squad, it was a good performance.
"Bit sloppy in that second half but that's the island sort of football, they're just throwing it around and you've got to do your best."
Wiliame welcomed the support the crowd gave to both sides, which he said highlighted the appetite for this type of game from fans.
"That's the good thing about Test games, especially with island football, they're always going to be loud and vocal and you've just got to soak it up," he said.
"The Pacific Islanders, they're growing [in the NRL], there's a big percentage of Pacific Islanders in the game now so it's always good, it's going to be good football as well, it's going to be class football and at the same time very exciting so it's a great weekend."