We continue our review of 2011 with the revitalised IRB Pacific Rugby Cup, which spread its wings into Australia and New Zealand for the first time.
The winner’s name on the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup may have remained the same for the third successive year with the Fiji Warriors again lifting the trophy, but the exciting new format in 2011 meant the team playing under this banner was a little different.
The Warriors, who last year became the only side to successfully defend the title, were no longer one of two representative sides from Fiji tackling the best locally-based players in Samoa and Tonga in a six-team tournament.
Instead, they were the Fiji A side and had eight different opponents to face, their equivalents in Tonga and Samoa as well as the development teams of six Super Rugby outfits, three in Australia and three in New Zealand.
The new-look competition was split into three series, the first in Australia, followed by one in New Zealand before the climax in Fiji, with only the three ‘core’ Pacific Island teams capable of lifting the trophy in 2011.
The introduction of the six Super Rugby development sides – Junior Waratahs, Brumby Runners, QAS Reds Academy, Crusader Knights and the Chiefs and Hurricanes Development XVs – resulted in raising the competition to a new level and providing “money can’t buy” experience for the Islanders.
“Most of our players had never played at that level,” Samoa A manager Ryan Schuster admitted after the tournament ended. “Even though the results were [sometimes] one-sided it did not reflect the effort put in by the players, the opposition capitalised on the little mistakes to score.
“I think we should continue this format, it will help the Pacific nations. We have learned a lot this year and hope to improve next year. The players have enjoyed this tournament. In previous years we were just playing amongst ourselves, but this format has a bright future.”
Samoa A were the only side to win in the New Zealand series - Photo: Richard Spranger FPSNZ
The Pacific Rugby Cup kicked off on 19 February with Fiji Warriors preventing an Australian clean sweep, Taniela Rawaqa’s late penalty snatching a 27-26 victory over the Reds Academy at Ballymore.
Four days later there was better news with the Warriors edging past the Junior Waratahs 15-12, Samoa A overcoming the Reds Academy 23-20 and Tonga A fighting back to draw 22-22 with the Brumby Runners.
The final day of the Australian Series also yielded two victories for the ‘core’ teams, Samoa A proving too strong for the Junior Waratahs in winning 35-12 and Tonga A picking up a first win, 23-22 over the Reds Academy following Edmond Paea’s late penalty.
Fiji Warriors surrendered their perfect record with a narrow 30-28 loss to the Brumby Runners in Canberra, leaving the title race finely poised as the competition moved across the Tasman with both they and Samoa A on nine points, three more than Tonga A.
The opening weekend in New Zealand brought the Islanders back down to earth after a positive Australian leg with three heavy losses, the Crusader Knights – playing at Carisbrook in a match moved after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch – and Chiefs Development XV scoring half centuries against the Warriors and Tonga A respectively.
Samoa A faired a little better in only losing 33-0 to the Hurricanes Development XV, but four days later they came within a whisker of beating the Crusader Knights in Timaru, only for Tom Taylor’s last gasp conversion of Rhys Llewellyn’s try to condemn them to a 22-21 loss.
Fiji Warriors fell 25-10 to the Chiefs Development XV, while Tonga A got acquainted with Hutt Recreation Park, one of their nation’s bases at Rugby World Cup 2011, on the day which marked six months until they open the tournament against hosts New Zealand.
The Samoans finally picked up the only win on New Zealand soil when they edged the Chiefs Development XV 18-17 in Pukekohe, albeit only after Trent Renata missed two late kicks for the hosts, and entered the final Series – a round robin between the ‘core’ teams – with a five-point advantage over Fiji Warriors.
This meant that the Warriors returned home knowing that only back-to-back victories over Tonga A and Samoa A would keep alive hopes of keeping the silverware in Fijian hands, and even then this wouldn’t be enough if the Samoans beat their Tongan rivals.
Fiji Warriors had to dig deep to win the new-look IRB Pacific Rugby Cup - Photo: Dianne Manson
The Warriors ticked off the first task, thanks largely to the Rawaqa’s reliable boot, the full-back kicking all the points in a 21-14 victory at Churchill Park in Lautoka. However, it could have been a different story had the Tongans not missed four kicks at goal.
Samoa A were also left ruing four missed kicks after slipping to a 23-12 loss against the Warriors, who scored 10 points late on – including a second try for wing Apisalome Waqatabu – to move three points clear in the standings.
The Fijians now had to keep their fingers crossed and pray for a Tongan victory four days later at Lawaqa Park in Sigatoka. Their nerves were certainly put through the wringer with a proverbial game of two halves, Tonga A going in 8-0 at half-time before their opponents came surging back to lead 13-8.
However, just as it seemed the Tongans would pay for squandering several try-scoring opportunities in the first half, they mounted one last attack and were awarded a penalty. Paea kicked to touch and from the resulting lineout, they sucked the defence in and swung the ball wide for Ahofono Alovili to score. Paea then held his nerve to land the conversion to secure the win and confirm the Warriors as champions.
“What has been the beauty of this new structure is that the best locally based players in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, some of who will go to the World Cup, have now had an opportunity to play the best up-and-coming players in Australia and New Zealand,” said William Glenwright, IRB Regional General Manager for Oceania.
“Eight high quality games, six of which were against Super Rugby development teams. You can't buy that level of experience, particularly in a World Cup year, and I think it is great for the national coaches to be able to test the local players in that sort of environment.”
IRB PACIFIC RUGBY CUP 2011 RESULTS:
19/02/11 – Junior Waratahs 28-18 Tonga A – Foreshaw Rugby Park
19/02/11 – Brumby Runners 29-13 Samoa A – Canberra Stadium
19/02/11 – QAS Reds Academy 26-27 Fiji Warriors – Ballymore
23/02/11 – Junior Waratahs 12-15 Fiji Warriors – St Marys League Club
23/02/11 – Brumby Runners 22-22 Tonga A – Vikings Park
23/02/11 – QAS Reds Academy 20-23 Samoa A – Ballymore
28/02/11 – Junior Waratahs 12-35 Samoa A – St Marys League Club
28/02/11 – QAS Reds Academy 22-23 Tonga A – Ballymore
28/02/11 – Brumby Runners 30-28 Fiji Warriors – Vikings Park
New Zealand Series
04/03/11 – Crusaders Knights 55-7 Fiji Warriors – Carisbrook
04/03/11 – Chiefs Development XV 50-13 Tonga A – Growers Stadium
05/03/11 – Hurricanes Development XV 33-0 Samoa A – Porirua Park
09/03/11 – Chiefs Development XV 25-10 Fiji Warriors – Blake Park
09/03/11 – Crusaders Knights 22-21 Samoa A – Alpine Energy Stadium
09/03/11 – Hurricanes Development XV 41-10 Tonga A – Hutt Recreation Ground
14/03/11 – Hurricanes Development XV 27-13 Fiji Warriors – Carisbrook
14/03/11 – Crusaders Knights 36-18 Tonga A – Lincoln University
14/03/11 – Chiefs Development XV 17-18 Samoa A – Growers Stadium
Pacific Island Series
19/03/11 – Fiji Warriors 21-14 Tonga A – Churchill Park
22/03/11 – Fiji Warriors 23-12 Samoa A – Churchill Park
26/03/11 – Tonga A 15-13 Samoa A – Lawaqa Park
This review is taken from the IRB World Rugby Yearbook 2012, click here to buy your copy.