IRB Pacific Nations CUP
As the year draws to a close, we take a look back at the third edition of the IRB Pacific Nations Cup involving New Zealand Maori, Australia A, Fiji, Japan, Samoa and Tonga.
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup silverware may have remained in New Zealand hands for the third year of the six-team competition, but this time there was a new name on the trophy with New Zealand Maori having replaced the Junior All Blacks as their country's representatives - even if the title was not won as convincingly as in the past with Australia A within a whisker of snatching the title for themselves.
Australia A and the Maori went into their final round showdown in Sydney on Sunday, 6 July with unbeaten records, the New Zealanders knowing that nothing but a win would give them the title due to their Trans Tasman rivals having a far superior point differential from their victories over Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Japan over the previous four weekends.
Both were guilty of missing scoring opportunities in the first half at Sydney Football Stadium, but ultimately it was the Maoris who went in leading 14-7 at the break, having come from behind with tries from Tanerau Latimer and co-captain Liam Messam to cancel out Timana Tahu's opening score for Australia A.
The home side fought back with two penalties from Wallaby wing Mark Gerrard and Tahu's second try of the match just past the hour mark giving the Australians a slender 18-14 lead, one which held until two minutes from time when co-captain Tamati Ellison dummied and slipped a tackle to send flanker Thomas Waldrom over for what proved to be the winning try.
Australia A, though, did have one last chance to snatch victory and the title in injury-time but Gerrard's 45-metre penalty attempt fell agonisingly just under the cross bar. Had it gone over and the match drawn 21-21 then they, not the Maoris, would have raised the silverware aloft. Instead it was the New Zealanders celebrating at the final whistle.
The final weekend also brought relief for Tonga as Quddus Fielea's side recorded their first win of the 2008 competition, beating Fiji 27-16 at Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku'alofa before the watching King Taufa'ahu Tupou V of Tonga to maintain their record of never having lost to their opponents since the Pacific Nations Cup began in 2006.
Fiji had led 16-15 but Tonga, roared on by their passionate supporters, dug deep and with their pack laying the platform for victory it was captain Nili Latu who scored their third try before impressive centre Epi Taione put the gloss with a late try to put the gloss on a win that was followed by scenes of dancing and hugging as the crowd joined their heroes on the pitch in celebration.
Tonga were heading for a winless campaign, until they discovered the winning habit to beat Fiji 27-16 in Nuku'alofa - Photo: Bruce Southwick/Zoomfiji
Fiji's loss in Nuku'alofa, allied with Samoa's tight 37-31 defeat of Japan at Apia Park, meant that it was the Samoans who finished best of the rest behind the Maoris and Australia A, albeit only by a single point differential from their fellow Pacific islanders having both accumulated 12 points, with Japan fifth - their best placing in the competition's three-year history -after securing two losing bonus points in Apia and Tonga sixth.
The 2008 IRB Pacific Nations Cup had kicked off a month earlier with home victories for Fiji and New Zealand Maoris over Samoa and Tonga respectively, along with an away victory of Australia A in Japan. Fiji's triumph over Samoa in Lautoka could have been even more impressive, had the visitors not scored three consolation tries late on to lose 34-17 before the watching former South Africa coach Jake White.
The Maoris endured a typically physical encounter with the Tongans in Albany to win 20-9 and maintain the record of a New Zealand side never having lost a match in the competition's history, while a gallant Japanese outfit fought back well in the second half to lose 42-21 to Australia A.
The following weekend just over 15,000 people braved the wet and humid conditions to pack into Apia Park to see Samoa tackle Australia A. The visitors seemingly had the game under control, leading 20-8 with less than 10 minutes remaining, but the Samoans dug deep to score through Muliufi Salanoa and set up a tense finale. Ultimately, though, they had to settle for a losing bonus point from the 20-15 loss.
Fiji also came close to causing an upset in round two and securing a first win over the Maoris since 1951, but ultimately All Black second row Jason Eaton's try midway through the second half of a match played in torrential rain proved decisive as the visitors ran out slender 11-7 winners in Lautoka.
There was, though, cause to celebrate for Japan, who followed up their impressive display against Australia A with a comfortable victory over Tonga, John Kirwan's side triumphing 35-13 in Sendai and securing a bonus point with Bryce Robins' scoring his side's fourth try in the dying minutes. This win was more convincing than the slender 20-17 success the Cherry Blossoms enjoyed in the 2007 competition.
Japan were hoping to make it two wins in a row for the first time in Pacific Nations Cup history when Fiji rolled into Tokyo a week later, but having seen his side go from leading 9-3 at half time to lose 24-12 come the final whistle Kirwan was frustrated, admitting that his charges "had ample opportunity to win today but threw the game away with errors".
Fiji made the perfect start to their 2008 campaign with a 34-17 defeat of Samoa in Lautoka- Photo: Bruce Southwick/Zoomfiji
Things did not get any better for Tonga in week three as Fielea's side conceded 14 tries in an emphatic 90-7 loss to Australia A at the North Sydney Oval - the most points racked up a winning side in the three years of the Pacific Nations Cup. Number 8 Stephen Hoiles scored four of these tries, while wing Drew Mitchell came off the bench to claim a late hat-trick as Tonga struggled to contain a powerful pack that scrummaged well and a backline full of running.
The Maoris also made it three wins out of three, albeit not as convincingly as Australia A had done, following their hard fought 17-6 defeat of Samoa at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton in which all of the home side's points came in the first half with Callum Bruce and Piri Weepu dotting down for tries.
New Zealand Maori again did not have it all their own way in week four, despite emerging with a 65-22 victory over Japan to remain unbeaten. The Japanese, making their first away trip of the competition and boosted by their displays against Tonga and Fiji over the two previous weekends, actually led 22-17 at half time but Hosea Gear's three tries in 23 minutes after the break turned the match in the Maoris favour and further tries from Zar Lawrence, Callum Bruce and Jason Kawau put a gloss on the final score.
Australia A were more convincing in beating Fiji 50-13 in Brisbane, Phil Mooney's side outscoring their visitors by seven tries to two at the Suncorp Stadium with Lachlan Turner crossing for two of these. Mooney therefore had his wish - "to go into the last game against the Maori playing for the title" - with the battle of the unbeaten sides set for Sydney seven days later.
The final weekend would also be the last chance for Tonga to record a victory in the 2008 competition after two late Gavin Williams' penalties earned Samoa a slender 20-15 away win at the Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku'alofa. Tonga had led 9-0 after half an hour and 15-14 going into the last 10 minutes but instead it was Samoa who claimed their first win after losses to Fiji, Australia A and the Maoris.
The tournament may have ended with New Zealand Maori winning the title from Australia A, but the benefits of the Pacific Nations Cup as a tool for developing future international stars - or even revitalising the careers of others such as Weepu - was clearly evident with a quick glance at the All Blacks and Wallabies squads touring the Europe last month revealing just over half of both had players who had appeared in the competition in it's short history.
An exciting new format for the 2009 edition will be announced in the New Year and with a title sponsor on board, the future of this key tournament for nurturing future stars of the international Game looks rosy.
07/06/2008 - Fiji 34-17 Samoa
07/06/2008 - New Zealand Maori 20-9 Tonga
08/06/2008 - Japan 21-42 Australia A
14/06/2008 - Fiji 7-11 New Zealand Maori
14/06/2008 - Samoa 15-20 Australia A
15/06/2008 - Japan 35-13 Tonga
21/06/2008 - New Zealand Maori 17-6 Samoa
22/06/2008 - Australia A 90-7 Tonga
22/06/2008 - Japan 12-24 Fiji
28/06/2008 - Tonga 15-20 Samoa
28/06/2008 - New Zealand Maori 65-22 Japan
29/06/2008 - Australia A 50-13 Fiji
05/07/2008 - Tonga 27-16 Fiji
05/07/2008 - Samoa 37-31 Japan
06/07/2008 - Australia A 18-21 New Zealand Maori