As the year draws to a close, we take a look back at the hotly contested IRB Pacific Rugby Cup, which saw a number of matches decided by tiny margins and a first Fijian champion.
Fiji Warriors had contested the inaugural IRB Pacific Rugby Cup final in 2006, but they had to wait three years before they finally got their hands on the trophy with a hard-fought 19-7 defeat of Upolu Samoa at Apia Park giving them the honour of becoming their country's first champions of the six-team representative tournament.
The victory was extra sweet for the Fijians, not only because they had never beaten Upolu in the competition's history, but that it came against the side that had left them heartbroken in round four after Samoa international Roger Warren kicked a penalty with the last play of the match to snatch a 23-21 away win at Churchill Park in Lautoka.
Fijian sides are known for their flair and speed, but the bedrock of the Warriors' success was their resolute defence as they resisted the relentless onslaught of Upolu attacks, particularly in the last quarter as the Samoan side threw everything they had in an attempt to send the 3,000 strong crowd home happy with a second title in three years.
Upolu had dominated the early exchanges with George Stowers in imperious form, but Warriors' captain Alefoso Yalayalatabua, leading his fellow forwards by example, scored the only try of the half in the 26th minute to ensure the visitors led 7-0 at the break.
Two tries in the opening 10 minutes of the second half proved crucial for the Warriors with first flanker Samu Bola and then hooker Viliame Veikoso touching down. Upolu did finally get on the scoreboard with Anitele'a Tuilagi 69th minute try, but the Fijians were determined their line would not be breached again whatever the Samoan side threw at them.
"The boys played with their heart and our defence won the game. I am very proud of the boys," said Warriors coach Ifereimi Tawake. "This win is important for our RWC 2011 preparations and these players are the future. This is great for Fiji rugby, I told them we were leaving our shores to win the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup and we did."
Roger Warren is mobbed by teammates after his last gasp penalty saw Upolu Samoa beat Fiji Warriors 23-21 in the round robin stages - Photo: Oceaniarugby.com
Upolu, the 2007 champions and runners-up to Tongan side Tautahi Gold in 2008, had contested the final without their influential fly half Warren, the leading point scorer in this year's competition with 57, who had picked up an injury in the all-Samoan affair with Savai'i Samoa the previous week.
That match had, until the final, been the only blemish on Upolu's record with 2006 champions Savai'i having triumphed 26-6 at Apia Park. The loss of Warren - himself a first minute injury replacement - did not help Upolu's cause, although they were already assured of a place in the final having won their first four matches in the round robin stages.
Savai'i were one of three sides hoping to join Upolu in the title decider going into the final round of pool matches, when the Warriors and Tautahi Gold also tasted victory over Tau'uta Reds and Fiji Barbarians respectively. The trio all finished with a record of won three, lost two but the Warriors had claimed an impressive five bonus points along the way and ended up level on 17 points with Upolu. Savai'i finished third on 15, then Gold with 14, Tau'uta Reds six and Fiji Barbarians five.
The Barbarians may have propped up the standings, but this was perhaps understandable, given that they were also their country's Under 20 side who were using the Pacific Rugby Cup to warm up for the IRB TOSHIBA Junior World Championship in Japan during June.
Warm up for Fiji Under 20s
The tournament didn't get off to the best of starts for the young Fijians with a 47-8 loss to the Warriors in Sigatoka, but despite conceding nearly 50 points in two others matches their development over the five weeks as a result of playing against senior sides was evident and they fully deserved their solitary victory, 26-15 over Tau'uta Reds in the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa in round four.
"The main purpose for us to participate in the tournament was to compete against the big boys," Fiji Under 20 coach Osea Umuumulovo on the eve of Junior World Championship. "We did great and beat one of the Tongan teams. We learned how to improve all the set pieces and how to play against big boys because South Africa and France are slightly bigger than us."
The participation of Fiji's Under 20 side under the banner of the Barbarians - it will be interesting to see if Samoa and Tonga follow their example next year - was not the only first in 2009 as the Pacific Rugby Cup finally saw the first hat-tricks scored since its introduction as a key element in the player development pathway in the Pacific Islands.
Samoa Sevens captain Ofisa Treviranus claimed that honour during Upolu's 49-13 defeat of the Barbarians in Apia during round three, although Warriors full-back Iliesa Keresoni then repeated the feat the following day in their 39-22 defeat of Savai'i.
"This tournament just continues to grow in stature, in popularity and in standard and not only in the standard of the players, but the standard of coaching and match officiating," Will Glenwright, the IRB's Regional General Manager for Oceania, admitted on the eve of the final in a Samoan capital that was "a buzz" with excitement.
"It has been another successful tournament, what we are starting to see now is the quality of athlete participating in the Pacific Rugby Cup improve significantly. All of the these players have now been in a High Performance programme within their respective countries for three years, so the athletes are fitter, bigger and stronger and we are seeing that reflected on the field."
One thing that was also evident was the ultra-competitive nature of the 2009 competition with seven matches decided by less than seven points. Tau'uta Reds were involved in three of these encounters, but unfortunately for the 2007 runners-up they only won one of them, 15-14 against Savai'i on the opening weekend.
IRB PACIFIC RUGBY CUP 2009 RESULTS
24/04/09 - Fiji Barbarians 8-47 Fiji Warriors
24/04/09 - Savai'i Samoa 14-15 Tau'uta Reds
25/04/09 - Tautahi Gold 9-17 Upolu Samoa
01/05/09 - Fiji Barbarians 17-23 Savai'i Samoa
01/05/09 - Upolu Samoa 19-15 Tau'uta Reds
02/05/09 - Tautahi Gold 26-21 Fiji Warriors
08/05/09 - Upolu Samoa 49-13 Fiji Barbarians
09/05/09 - Tautahi Gold 14-12 Tau'uta Reds
09/05/09 - Fiji Warriors 39-22 Savai'i Samoa
15/05/09 - Fiji Warriors 21-23 Upolu Samoa
16/05/09 - Tau'uta Reds 15-26 Fiji Barbarians
16/05/09 - Savai'i Samoa 18-14 Tautahi Gold
22/05/09 - Fiji Barbarians 10-47 Tautahi Gold
22/05/09 - Savai'i Samoa 26-6 Upolu Samoa
23/05/09 - Tau'uta Reds 15-40 Fiji Warriors
29/05/09 - Upolu Samoa 7-19 Fiji Warriors
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