2010 in review: Samoa claim first PNC title
By Tom Chick
As the year draws to a close, we continue our reviews of IRB tournaments by taking a look back at the ANZ Pacific Nations Cup where a new champion was guaranteed.
The ANZ Pacific Nations Cup crowned its first champion from outside New Zealand this year as Samoa dramatically overcame all the odds to snatch the title from Fiji’s grasp on home soil at Apia Park in June with a thrilling 41-38 victory.
With all but the opening match between Fiji and Japan being hosted in Apia, it was the hosts who capitalised on the absence of defending champions, the Junior All Blacks, and saved their best performance of the tournament for when it mattered in a dramatic finale.
A new name was always set to be etched onto the PNC trophy in the fifth instalment of the tournament and for the first time since its inception none of the three representative sides from Australia or New Zealand (Junior All Blacks, New Zealand Maori and Australia A) participated.
But with a first ever IRB Sevens World Series title already secured, this triumph was another feather in the cap of Samoan rugby in 2010. Fittingly, many of the Sevens winning squad starred for Fuimaono Tafua’s team throughout the tournament and crucially in the title decider against the favourites Fiji, who themselves had a 100% record heading into the match.
Having narrowly beaten Tonga 24-23 in the opening match, the hosts suffered just their second ever defeat to HSBC Asian 5 Nations champions Japan and their first in the history of the PNC, losing 31-23 in the second week of the competition. The defeat left them needing a try-scoring bonus point and winning margin of more than 13 points against Fiji to win the PNC for the first time.
Joe Tekori put the Samoans on course after 16 minutes, scoring the first try of the match, before the home crowd erupted when Mikaele Pesamino demonstrated why he was named IRB Sevens Player of the Year in the 22nd minute, chipping over the Fijian defence and showing great speed to collect and score.
With just 15 minutes to go, however, it looked as if Samoa would fall short in their quest for a first PNC title as Fiji gradually clawed their way back into the match and reduced the deficit to 14-9 thanks to three Taniela Rawaqa penalties, but what happened next will go down in PNC folklore.
Uale Mai was among the Sevens players involved in Samoa's success - Photo: Oceaniarugby.com
IRB Sevens Player of the Year nominee Alafoti Fa’osiliva replaced George Stowers on the hour mark knowing his side needed two more tries, and within minutes had an immediate impact, scoring both required tries in a three-minute burst.
Firstly, the flanker was on hand to pick the ball up from the base of an offensive scrum on the Fijian line, and his second came immediately after Lolo Lui had converted the first.
From the restart the Fijians were clearly feeling the pressure and an uncharacteristic fumble allowed Census Johnston to capitalise and remarkably the prop kicked ahead for Fa’osiliva, who showed great speed and composure to chase and score the all important bonus point try to send the partisan crowd into raptures.
Any hopes Fiji had of a comeback were dashed though, when they lost Rupeni Nasiga to the sin-bin before David Lemi and Uale Mai combined to secure the 31-9 victory for the hosts, with the latter crossing and Lui adding the conversion.
“We came into this game to win and scoring four tries was a bonus. We knew Fiji was going to be strong so we had to be mentally and physically stronger than them," said head coach Tafua after the final whistle.
"I give credit to the players for their effort and this is a good building ground as we prepare for Rugby World Cup next year.
"The team had been under pressure the whole week and we needed to come out with a super show. The Head of State had told us to improve on our weaknesses and that motivated the players to work harder."
For the first time in the tournament’s history, the second and third rounds of matches were streamed live on the IRB website and the 14-day tournament is a fundamental aspect of all four teams’ Rugby World Cup 2011 preparations.
Those watching not only witnessed one of the most intense and dramatic finishes in Pacific Nation Cup history but also a preview to next year’s RWC with both final round matches.
If this tournament is anything to go by, the passion, desire and quality of rugby from these four nations will make their matches next year must-see spectacles adding a Pacific flavour to the World Cup.
While Fiji will be awaiting a rematch with Samoa on the biggest stage in Pool D alongside current world champions South Africa, Wales and IRB Nations Cup winners Namibia, Tonga will also be chomping at the bit to play Japan in Pool A after they once again lost out by the narrowest margins.
Tonga’s 26-23 defeat to Japan in the tournament’s penultimate match meant they recorded their third losing bonus point and finished fourth in the tournament standings. The story, however, could have been very different as they lost by three or less points in each of their matches demonstrating the PNC’s continuing competitiveness.
In the first round Tonga and eventual winners Samoa were separated by just one point and although they have never beaten the Samoans in the PNC with a number of new players and coach, former All Black Isitolo Maka, the Ikale Tahi came the closest yet, suffering a narrow 24-23 defeat.
Seven days later Tonga held a 31-10 half-time lead and looked to be on course for their fourth victory in five PNC matches against Fiji, but second half tries from Campese Ma’afu, replacement Kelemedi Bolatagane and captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu brought Samu Domoni’s side within striking distance.
Japan denied Tonga with a late try to leave the islanders without a win - Photo: Oceaniarugby.com
With seven minutes remaining Fiji completed a stunning comeback as lock Sekonaia Kalou scored in the corner and Rawaqa converted to secure their second victory of the tournament after a 22-8 victory over Japan in the opening round at Churchill Park in Lautoka, the only match to be played outside of Samoa.
Tonga suffered further heartbreak against Japan in the penultimate match on 26 June. They did, though, end Japan’s faint hopes of winning the title after they stopped John Kirwan’s side gaining the try-scoring bonus point they needed to stand any chance of adding the Pacific Nations Cup to their HSBC Asian 5 Nations 2010 title.
Having taken the lead in the 67th minute through a fine individual Alipate Fatafehi try and a Kurt Morath penalty after 76 minutes giving Tonga a 23-19 lead it looked as though they would mark their continuing development with their first victory in their final match.
But after losing captain Aleki Lutui to the sin-bin, Japan's scrum took advantage and were finally awarded a penalty try deep into stoppage time, which James Arlidge converted to secure the win.
Although Arlidge scored 16 points in the match to take his tally to 32, fly half Morath did offer some consolation for Tonga as he ended the tournament as the top point scorer with 39 and Vungakoto Lilo finished as joint top try scorer (three) with Pesamino.
12/06/10 - Samoa 24-23 Tonga
12/06/10 - Fiji 22-8 Japan
19/06/10 - Fiji 41-38 Tonga
19/06/10 - Samoa 23-31 Japan
26/06/10 - Japan 26-23 Tonga
26/06/10 - Fiji 9-31 Samoa
Taken from the IRB World Rugby Yearbook 2011 - Click here to buy your copy >>