As the six month countdown to Rugby World Cup 2011 was reached on Wednesday, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga continued their preparations with a second round of matches for their A sides against New Zealand Super Rugby franchises in the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup 2011.
The three matches did not yield a victory for the Pacific Island sides, but the margins of defeat narrowed from last Friday with Samoa A coming closest to breaking that duck, leading the Crusader Knights late on before ultimately falling 22-21 in Timaru.
The losing bonus point takes Samoa A out on their own at the top of the standings with 10 points, one more than Fiji Warriors who fell 25-10 to the Chiefs Development team with Tonga A on six points still after losing 41-10 to the Hurricanes Development outfit.
CRUSADER KNIGHTS 22-21 SAMOA A
Tom Taylor proved the Crusader Knights’ hero with a last gasp conversion snatching a 22-21 victory over Samoa A in their IRB Pacific Rugby Cup 2011 encounter at the Alpine Energy Stadium in Timaru.
The Samoans had seemed on course to become the first Pacific Island side to win on New Zealand soil in the new-look competition, but while a man down with prop Heroshi Tea in the bin, Knights wing Rhys Llewellyn sneaked over in the corner.
Centre Taylor held his nerve to land the winning kick and leave Samoa counting the cost of a missed opportunity to put them out of reach with 10 minutes to go, captain Roger Warren making a good break only to decide to float a pass out wide rather than feed the impressive Maselino Paulino when he appeared on his shoulder.
However, the match, on the day that marked six months to go to Rugby World Cup 2011, showed a vast improvement from the Samoans’ last outing, when they fell 33-0 to the Hurricanes Development team in the New Zealand capital last weekend.
Moved to Timaru following last month’s devastating earthquake in Christchurch, the match was entertaining from the start with Samoa A giving the ball plenty of air in an expansive game and putting in their trademark tough tackling on the Crusaders development team.
Taylor had opened the scoring with an 11th minute penalty, but as the half hour approached Warren had kicked the Samoans into a 6-3 lead with two of his own. The first try came in the 30th minute, scrum half Morgan Salesa making a decisive break with the standout Paulino touching down.
Crusaders Super Rugby squad member and last year’s IRB Junior World Championship winning captain Tyler Bleyendaal then ghosted through a gap in the defence as Samoa A fell off tackles for the first time in the match, cutting the deficit to 11-10.
There was still time, though, for Samoa A to increase their advantage before the half time whistle, some quick thinking resulting in a quickly taken lineout with prop Reupena Leilua rounding off the move, Warren’s conversion giving his side a deserved 18-10 lead at the break.
Once more the Knights came back at their visitors with hooker Francis Smith touching down within five minutes of the restart, but they could then only stand and admire as Samoan full back Titi Esau unleashed a drop goal from inside his own half to make it 21-15.
CHIEFS DEVELOPMENT 25-10 FIJI WARRIORS
Wing Jarek Goebel scored two first half tries as the Chiefs Development team made it two wins from two in the Pacific Rugby Cup, following up a convincing win over Tonga A by beating the Fiji Warriors 25-10 in Mt Maunganui.
Played under a clear blue sky, Goebel opened the scoring in the 12th minute, only for Fiji Warriors fly half Jonetani Ralulu to keep his side in touch with a penalty. A Dan Waenga penalty increased the advantage before Goebel crossed for his second try.
Ralulu ensured Fiji Warriors finished the half strongly by scoring and then converting his own try as the visitors went in trailing only 17-10 at the interval at Blake Park.
Another Waenga penalty in the 50th minute increased the advantage, but it was not until two minutes from time that the Chiefs Development team added a third try through scrum half Malcolm Barnes.
HURRICANES DEVELOPMENT 41-10 TONGA A
Tonga A may have slipped to a second defeat on New Zealand soil, but the outing against the Hurricanes Development team gave them a chance to have a closer look at the Hutt Recreation Ground which will be one of their training venues at Rugby World Cup 2011.
The Tongans will use the Wellington venue in the build up to their final Pool A match against France on 1 October, and national coach Isitolo Maka is delighted by the challenges this Pacific Rugby Cup competition is posing for his players.
"The tournament is really good and we are enjoying it so far," insisted Maka. "It is also good to play against different competition and these guys are at a different level, which is good for us."
The Hurricanes Development team, who had beaten Samoa A 33-0 last Saturday, opened the scoring in the 17th minute when wing Joelin Rapana touched down and by half time that advantage had grown to 19-3 with a penalty try and score by full back Jason Woodward.
The score remained that way until the hour mark, Sione Fonua having missed an opportunity to cut the deficit with a missed penalty, but three tries in seven minutes through wing James So'oialo and replacements Motu Matu'u and Api Naikatini put the match beyond doubt.
Tonga A did manage to cross the Hurricanes Development try-line six minutes from time through centre Charles Mateo, but the home side had the final say with replacement Greg Lealofi touching down for their seventh try of the evening.
The New Zealand Series will climax on Monday, 14 March, when the Hurricanes Development team face the Fiji Warriors at Poirura Park, the Crusader Knights tackle Tonga A at Lincoln University and the Chiefs Development meet Samoa A in Pukekohe.
The IRB Pacific Rugby Cup will then draw to a conclusion in Fiji with the three Pacific Island sides coming together for a round robin to ultimately crown the 2011 champions, before the trio look forward to the IRB Pacific Nations Cup in Japan in July and then RWC 2011.