IRB Pacific Nations CUP
On a thrilling penultimate match day of the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup, with Fiji edging Samoa 19-14 and Japan defeating Tonga 19-21, the results mean that the one team that did not play - the Junior All Blacks - keep the Pacific Nations Cup crown in New Zealand hands.
Even if Fiji were to record a bonus point win over Japan in their final match to draw level with the Junior All Blacks (JABs) in the overall standings, the New Zealand side's win over the Fijians on match day two means that they would remain top.
Tonga 19-21 Japan
Japan recorded their third successive victory over Tonga in their ANZ Pacific Nations Cup clash in Lautoka, grinding out a 21-19 win over a fast finishing Tongan team.
It was Japan who enjoyed the wealth of early possession and territory, launching wave after wave of attacks with a dangerous looking backline and it was only resolute defence from Tonga that stopped them from gaining an early ascendency on the scoreboard.
Yet it was Tonga that opened the scoring through Joseph Vaka who was moved into the centres from his favoured wing position for today's clash. Tonga capitalised on a charge-down deep in the Japan 22 and from the ensuing play the ball was shifted wide to Vaka who scooped up a loose pass and sidled in untouched next to the posts. Pierre Hola converted to give Tonga a 7-0 lead.
Japan's Ryan Nicholas responded shortly after with a penalty - Tonga 7-3.
Japan took the lead soon after with a brilliant try to Shaun Webb after James Aldridge pulled off a wonderful chip and regather only to be pulled up painfully short of the try line by Joseph Vaka - but Webb was positioned beautifully at the back of the ensuing ruck to pounce over the line. Japan 8-7.
Webb extended the lead just before half time with his second try after more sustained pressure from the Japanese team had the Tongans on the back foot. Webb burst through the midfield on the angle to touch down under the sticks - a try that was converted to give Japan a 15-7 half-time lead.
The Japanese backs, directed superbly by fly half Takashi Kikutani, carved out a number of openings in midfield as the first half wore on, but they were unable to take the opportunities to extend their lead.
Tonga opened up the second half account thanks to a brilliant individual effort by hooker 'Iliasi Ma'asi, who dummied his way for 30 metres through the Japanese defence and score down the right flank. Hola converted - Japan 15-14.
French referee Romain Poite sent Tonga's second rower Joshua Afu to the bin shortly afterwards for repeated infringements yet the Japanese weren't able to capitalise against the 14 men and it wasn't until the 66th minute that Japan extended the lead through a Nicholas penalty. Japan 18-14.
The final 15 minutes had the vocal crowd on their feet as both back lines launched attack after attack and when Nicolas slotted another penalty with just 32 minutes left it looked like Japan would hold out to be 21-14 victors.
But the Tongans had one attack left in them and from the kick-off Tevita Halaifonua darted down the right wing to score a wonderful solo try in the corner. It was left to Halaifonua to try and convert his try and tie the match but his kick sailed to the right and Japan secured yet another win over Tonga - their third in as many attempts.
Samoa 14-19 Fiji
A heaving crowd piled into Churchill Park in Lautoka to watch Fiji score a thrilling 19-14 win over Pacific rivals Samoa in an intense and physical game.
It was the game that had been on the lips of all of Fiji since their disappointing outing against the Junior All Blacks last week - and the Flying Fijians didn't disappoint their expectant fans.
It was an intriguing and bruising first half. Samoa dominated early possession and territory and Fiji. The Fijians struggled to launch meaningful attacks with what little possession they had as they were thwarted by the hulking Samoan midfield defence.
The experienced Samoan centre pairing of Gavin Williams and Seilala Mapasua did a stirling job shutting down the dangerous Fijian backline and it wasn't until local superstar Vereniki Goneva replaced an injured Bolakoro in the 33rd minute that the Fijian backline began to light-up.
Fiji's first meaningful venture into the Samoan half ended cruelly with a try disallowed because of an obstruction ruling. Referee Jonathan Kaplan's patience ran out in the 25th minute when he sent Semisi Naevo to the bin for diving into the ruck - the third infringement in the Samoan 22 in five minutes.
By this stage Samoa were leading 9-3 after both teams exchanged penalties. The lead could have been greater had Samoa's Gavin Williams brought his kicking boots - missing two penalties that the tournament's third highest point-scorer would ordinarily have slotted with ease.
Kaplan, who is enjoying a similar status of celebrity as most of the players in Rugby-mad Fiji, blew time on a ferocious first half with Samoa holding a 9-3 advantage.
The second half began as the first finished - another penalty, this time converted by Seremaia Bai - clawing Samoa's lead back to 3. Samoa 9-6.
As the bruising encounter took its toll on the increasingly tired teams, the Fijian backline started to look more dangerous and Goneva was coming into his element - thriving in the extra space that was starting to open up and perhaps reminding him of his familiar Sevens environment. In fact it was only desperate Samoan defence that prevented a try after an outstanding solo effort by Goneva that finished cruelly on the Samoan tryline.
It was only a matter of time though - from the very next scrum Goneva sliced through the Samoan defence to touch down next to the sticks - converted by Bai and for the first time in the match, Fiji had the lead - 13-9.
Bai extended the lead 10 minutes later courtesy of a penalty to Bai - Fiji16-9.
The seven-point deficit sparked the Samoan's into action. Their backs - who were so impressive in the first half, were gelling once again and their forward pack were again providing them the possession they enjoyed so much of in the first half.
Such was the Samoan confidence that when a penalty was offered within kicking distance with 12 minutes to go, captain George Stowers opted for the tap. His faith was immediately rewarded when replacement halfback Notise Tauafao pounced over the line after the Samoan forwards monstered their Fijian counterparts and forced the ball to spit out the back of the ruck in the right corner to bring Samoa within two points. The try went unconverted to leave the score 16-14 in favour of Fiji.
If the players had any energy left to talk to each other in the final minutes it would have been in vain - such was the ferocity of the cheering from the delirious crowd. When Bai extended the lead with another penalty kick with just six minutes to go, Fiji had a 19-14 lead and the crowd on their feet. Samoa literally threw everything at Fiji for the final five minutes, yet the defence held solid and when Kaplan blew for full time, Lautoka exploded.
Intriguing final day
The Junior All Blacks may have succeeded New Zealand Maori as champions, but there remains two intriguing matches as the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup roadshow heads to the Fijian capital for the tournament climax.
Of particular interest is the Fiji v Japan match - both teams enjoying wins in Saturday's double header in Lautoka and both in fine form. The clash of the backlines, both of which were in wonderful form against Samoa and Tonga is mouthwatering.
Samoa remain in second position on the points table but Fiji can leapfrog them with a win on Friday. Similarly, the significantly improved Japanese team can achieve their best-ever finish in the history of the tournament with third place still within their reach.
The penultimate match of the tournament sees Tonga desperate to finish the tournament on a high against the star-studded Junior All Blacks. It's Suva's first chance to see the Junior All Blacks in action and Tonga will be keen to add to their points tally.
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