Fiji Warriors have been crowned IRB Pacific Rugby Cup champions after Tonga A fly half Edmond Paea held his nerve to kick a conversion two minutes from time to snatch a 15-13 victory over Samoa A in the final match of the 2011 competition on Saturday.
The Warriors had beaten Samoa A 23-12 on Tuesday to return to the top of the standings with a three-point advantage over their opponents, but faced a nervous wait to see whether the Samoans could get the win they needed against Tonga A to pip their conquerors to the title.
The Fijian nerves would have eased in the first half at Lawaqa Park with Tonga A establishing an 8-0 lead after an early penalty from Paea was followed by a 28th minute try by Mateo Malupo, the centre cutting through the Samoan defence with ease.
Tonga A would have been kicking themselves, however, at two try scoring opportunities that went array, flanker Joseph Kolokihakaufisi knocking on over the line just before Malupo’s try, before Soane Sinisa’s pass was judged forward with the defence beaten.
Those missed opportunities – together with a missed penalty and conversion by Paea – looked certain to prove costly when the Samoans began the fight back in the second half with Titi Esau’s penalty within a minute of the restart.
Samoa A began to find their form and a period of concerted pressure on the Tongan line just past the hour mark resulted in a penalty awarded five metres out, replacement hooker Pelesiusi Fualau taking a quick tap and scoring an easy try under the posts.
Esau added the conversion but missed a penalty soon with 15 minutes to go as the match – and the destination of the title – hung in the balance in Sigatoka. Samoa A captain Roger Warren looked to have sealed both with a 50-metre drop goal 10 minutes from time.
One final twist
There was, though, to be one more twist as Tonga A made one last foray forward, earning a penalty which Paea had no choice but to kick to touch with the three points not enough given his side trailed 13-8.
From the ensuing lineout, the Tongans sucked their opponents into a maul before swinging the ball out wide for replacement Ahofono Alovili to touch down in the corner, but it still took Paea’s conversion to secure only a second victory of the competition.
The final whistle brought delight not only for Tonga but also the home fans in Sigatoka with Fiji Warriors confirmed as champions, having accumulated 17 points, two more than Samoa A with Tonga A’s victory bringing them to 11 points.
A side named the Fiji Warriors has now won the last three Pacific Rugby Cup titles, although unlike the two previous successes this was the Fijian A side playing under that banner not one of two regional representative teams flying the Fijian flag.
The previous format of two representative teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga was discarded in 2011 with the A sides joined by three Super Rugby development sides from Australia and New Zealand in different series.
The new-look competition has proved popular and very beneficial to the Pacific Island teams with a number of players putting themselves in contention for a place on the plane to Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.