Tautahi Gold remain the only unbeaten side in the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup 2010 after surviving a second half fightback by the Fiji Barbarians in the top of the table clash at Churchill Park in Lautoka on Friday.
The 2008 champions led from start to finish, dominating the first half with tries from captain Sione Kalamafoni and wing Petelo Tupou in the opening 10 minutes. Tautahi Gold's advantage grew to 21-0 with three Tupou Palu penalties, before a 50m kick by Jaoji Dakuvula got the Barbarians on the scoreboard just before half time.
Palu extended the lead to 24-3 with his fourth penalty in the 55th minute to keep the Tongans on course for a seemingly straightforward victory. However, Tautahi Gold had not counted on Sevens star Emosi Vucago sparking the Barbarians into life.
Vucago began the fightback with the Barbarians first try and then, after another Palu penalty, made a scintillating 40-metre break down the right wing to set up a try for his captain Rupeni Nasiga to cut the deficit to 27-17 with 10 minutes remaining.
Prop Sakeo Latianara scored another try for the Barbarians, but to the crowd's dismay they ran out of time to cross for a fourth try to seal not only the victory but a try bonus, leaving them with only a losing bonus point to show from a thrilling match.
"They weren't as physical as the other teams we've played, but they threw the ball out wide," said Kalamafoni. "The first half was definitely ours but in the second half they switched and started to play wide and started breaking through our lines.
"After three wins we are very confident, but we know it won't be easy."
Tau'uta Reds leave it late
The win takes Tautahi Gold to the top of the standings with 12 points, two more than Fiji Warriors who leapfrog the Barbarians on point differential following thier 42-20 defeat of 2006 champions Savai'i Samoa. Savai'i are fourth on five points, the same as Tau'uta Reds who climb off the bottom after beating Upolu Samoa 19-18 with a try in the dying seconds.
Upolu Samoa's defeat means they are the only side yet to record a victory in 2010 and also ends their hopes of reaching a fourth successive IRB Pacific Rugby Cup final and adding to their only crown in 2007.
The Samoans looked to have wrapped up victory after scoring a try against the run of play when replacement Talaleli Moli pounced on a charged down ball in the corner, Pesamino Alauni's conversion making it 18-12 in their favour.
However, after referee James Bolabiu had ruled out another try for Upolu they opted not to take a kickable penalty, a decision which gave the Reds renewed hope and ultimately proved very costly.
The Reds gradually moved the ball up field and when Bolabiu sent prop Salafai Mika to the sin-bin on full time, they dominated a five-metre scrum to allow replacement Matini Tupou to touch down under the posts, giving Fokolulu Taumalolo an easy conversion for the win.
Upolu had led 11-5 midway through the first half after a try by captain Jerry Meafou and two Alauni penalties cancelled out Alekisanita Taka's opening try for the Reds. However, Charles Mateo's try meant Upolu went in trailing by a point at the break.
The victory was only Tau'uta Reds' second win in six meetings with Upolu Samoa, the previous one having also been by a single point in 2007 when Tukitoa Na'a kicked a last gasp penalty to steal a 31-30 win.
Warriors back on track
The other encounter on day three saw Fiji Warriors continue their recovery from an opening loss to Fiji Barbarians by overwhelming Savai'i Samoa to boost their hopes of becoming the first side to successfuly defend the Pacific Rugby Cup title.
The Warriors were always in control of the match, dominating both possession and territory in the first half to provide their dangerous backline with a wealth of attacking opportunities to the delight of the home crowd in Lautoka.
Nikola Matawalu has been one of the stars of the tournament and again staked his claim for a place in Fiji's squad for the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup next month in Samoa, scoring the Warriors' opening try after weaving through the Savai'i defence.
Captain Dale Tonawai scored the Warriors' second try just before the half hour mark and from the restart another piece of brilliance from Matawalu allowed Tonawai and wing Paula Tiko to combine for the latter to score under the posts.
Savai'i finally got on the scoreboard just before half time with Henry Bryce's try, but went in trailing 21-5. Ofisa Faauma kicked a penalty to narrow the gap slightly, but Jimilai Naikdawa charged down a Samoan kick to regather and score under the posts.
The Samoans did cross for two more tries, through David Masoe and Naama Leleimalefaga, but each one was rebutted by the Warriors with scores of their own through Apisalome Ratuniyarawa and Waisale Vatuvoka.
"In our first match we didn't listen to the coaches and didn't follow the game plan," admitted Warriors full back Taniela Rawaqa. "But now we're listening and following the game plan and we're confident that we can defend the title."
The penultimate round of pool matches takes place on Tuesday when Tau'uta Reds face Savai'i Samoa, Fiji Barbarians tackle Upolu Samoa and Tautahi Gold face another top of the table encounter with Fiji Warriors at Prince Charles Park in Nadi.
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