As the year draws to a close, we take a look back at the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup 2009, which saw the Junior All Blacks return and the competition take place largely in one country for the first time.
The silverware may have remained in New Zealand hands once more with the returning Junior All Blacks going through the tournament unbeaten, but the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup broke new ground in 2009 with a condensed format which saw all bar the opening round of matches played in one country - Fiji.
A new title sponsor and tournament format were not the only changes for this year with Australia A having withdrawn and two-time champions the Junior All Blacks replacing 2008 winners New Zealand Maori as their country's representatives to give the Pacific Nations Cup the same line-up as its inaugural year in 2006.
"The hosting of the majority of the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup matches for the first time in a single country is a very exciting development for a tournament which is now a major event in the global rugby calendar," said IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset.
The three previous editions of the Pacific Nations Cup - a key element of the IRB's Strategic Investment Programme - have gradually seen the divide between the second strings of New Zealand and Australia and the other four nations narrow, and with the new condensed format enabling Fiji, Tonga and Samoa in particular to secure the services of their overseas based players the 2009 competition continued this trend.
Hanging on for victory
The tournament kicked off on 12 June at Apia Park as Samoa took on a Junior All Blacks side captained by centre Tamati Ellison and without the services of Luke McAlister after his elevation to the All Blacks to replace the injured Richard Kahui.
Tries from Hosea Gear and Israel Dagg helped the Junior All Blacks establish a 14-0 half time lead, but the visitors had not counted on Samoa coming roaring back in an enthralling second half with Gavin Williams kicking two penalties and crossing for a try before Esera Lauina's effort forced the tournament favourites to hang on for 13 minutes for a 17-16 victory.
The next day Tonga welcomed Fiji to the Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku'alofa. Tonga started each half with a try, but they couldn't maintain that momentum against a Fijian side who crossed for five tries in total to secure a bonus point 36-22 win and the perfect warm up for their meeting with the Junior All Blacks five days later in Lautoka.
Japan had sat out the opening round and so began their campaign against Samoa in the only match of the 17-day festival of rugby on Fijian soil at Lawaqa Park in Sigatoka. The match did not begin well for the Japanese with a penalty try and another from Justin Va'a giving the Samoans a 12-3 half-time advantage.
However within 10 minutes of the restart Japan lead following tries from Jack Tarrant and Hirotoki Onozawa, although this would be their final act on the scoreboard as Samoa took control with Mahroni Schwalger, Lauina and Semo Sititi touching down to seal a 34-15 victory and a second bonus point of the competition.
An expectant 10,000 fans converged on Lautoka hoping to see Fiji upset the Junior All Blacks, but the majority of them left Churchill Park disappointed with Gear scoring the first and last of seven tries as the well-drilled New Zealanders ran out 45-17 winners to leave them sitting atop the standings after two rounds with nine points, three clear of Samoa.
Fiji beat Tonga, Samoa and Japan in 2009, although they need a try at the death to beat the Japanese 40-39 in a thriller in Suva - Photo: Oceaniarugby.com
The third round provided the first double header with Samoa taking on Tonga and the Junior All Blacks facing the Japanese. Samoa came out on top in a typically physical encounter with Tonga, recording a 27-13 victory, but while they outscored their rivals by four tries to one, they were also guilty of failing to capitalise on a number of opportunities.
The Junior All Blacks wrapped up the second match with a 40-0 lead at half-time, but the improving Japanese didn't let the floodgates open and actually 'won' the second half with Hitoshi Ono, Tarrant and Koji Taira crossing for tries before the New Zealanders rediscovered their scoring touch with Gear and Sione Lauaki touching down in the 52-21 win.
Undoubtedly the fourth round highlight Fiji versus Samoa, one which had been the talk of the town leading up to the Churchill Park tie. The expectant crowd were treated to a spectacle, Samoa dominating early possession and territory, their centre pairing of Gavin Williams and Seilala Mapusua shutting down the dangerous Fijian backline for much of the first half as their side went in 9-3 ahead.
With Fiji's backline looking more dangerous, Vereniki Goneva was denied a stunning try, but within minutes the Sevens star touched down to move the hosts into a 16-9 lead. It remained that way until 12 minutes from time when Samoa turned down a quick tap and were rewarded when Notise Tauafao pounced on a loose ball in-goal.
The conversion was missed and Seremaia Bai had the raucous crowd on their feet when his penalty extended Fiji's lead to 19-14. Samoa threw everything at their hosts, but the defence held firm to spark celebrations when referee Jonathan Kaplan blew for full-time. The celebrations were not only Fiji's though as their victory meant the Junior All Blacks would keep the silverware in New Zealand hands.
The day also yielded a first win for Japan, who edged a tight battle with Tonga 21-19 to record their third successive PNC victory over the islanders. Only resolute Tonga defence kept Japan at bay with two tries from Shaun Webb did give Asia's top side a 15-7 half-time lead.
Last gasp try settles thriller
A brilliant solo effort from hooker 'Iliasi Ma'asi cut the deficit, but two Ryan Nicholas penalties edged Japan out to 21-14 as the attack-minded sides kept the crowd enthralled. Tonga hit back with Tevita Halaifonua darting down the right wing to score, but crucially he missed the conversion to level the scores.
The focus moved to the National Stadium in Suva for the final round with the Junior All Blacks defending their unbeaten PNC record against winless Tonga and Fiji needing to beat Japan to overhaul Samoa for second spot. The New Zealanders, though, didn't have it all their own way against Tonga, despite the seemingly convincing 47-25 scoreline, and trailed 18-12 at half-time despite two tries in three minutes by Gear.
The introduction of Victor Vito re-energised the pack and three tries in the last eight minutes put a gloss on the final score. This match, though, was merely an appetiser for a master class of adventurous running rugby between Fiji and Japan the following day, one decided only at the death with Netani Talei's try sealing a 40-39 win for the hosts.
Japan made the early running and led 14-3, but Goneva's try gave the Fijians an unlikely 20-14 half-time advantage. There was no let up when play resumed, Japan scoring three tries - two of them by captain Takashi Kikutani - to move out to 36-26 with 10 minutes remaining. There was to be no first win over Fiji in 15 years for Japan as, roared on by their vociferous fans, first Sireli Ledua and then Talei crossed the try-line.
The ANZ Pacific Nations Cup was as successful off the pitch as it was on it with the teams buying into the whole event - the Junior All Blacks often took 30 minutes to make it to their match day bus to satisfy the amassed autograph hunters - and the Fijian public enjoying top class international matches and extending a warm welcome to all with referee Kaplan enjoying the same celebrity status as the players.
ANZ PACIFIC NATIONS CUP 2009 RESULTS
12/06/09 - Samoa 16-17 Junior All Blacks
13/06/09 - Tonga 22-36 Fiji
18/06/09 - Japan 15-34 Samoa
18/06/09 - Junior All Blacks 45-17 Fiji
23/06/09 - Samoa 27-13 Tonga
23/06/09 - Japan 21-52 Junior All Blacks
27/06/09 - Tonga 19-21 Japan
27/06/09 - Samoa 14-19 Fiji
02/07/09 - Tonga 25-47 Junior All Blacks
03/07/09 - Fiji 40-39 Japan
1. Junior All Blacks