IRB Pacific Nations CUP
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2011 got underway on Saturday with matches in two different continents, Tonga running out winners over hosts FIji in Lautoka before defending champions Samoa beat Japan in Tokyo.
TONGA 45-21 FIJI
Tonga made an impressive start to the IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2011, outscoring their hosts Fiji five tries to two at Churchill Park in Lautoka to record their first victory in the competition for three years. On a postcard perfect day in the sugar city, Tonga outplayed Fiji in all facets and turned in a mammoth defensive effort to shut down a potentially potent Fijian backline.
A personal haul of 20 points for Kurt Morath was just one of a number of highlights for the friendly islanders, the Australia-based fly half landing four conversions and four penalties as Tonga tasted victory for the first time since beating Fiji in 2008.
The win was built on a stoic defensive effort by Tonga's back row and centre pairing of Andrew Malilei and Alaska Taufa in particular, who succeeded in completely shutting down the potentially lethal Fijian pairing of Gaby Lovobalavu and Albert Vulivuli. The Fijians were given no space whatsoever and struggled to make an impact on the game.
Tonga took a 23-9 lead into half time after scoring two tries with Fiji’s only response three penalties from the boot of Nicky Little. Full back Vungakoto Lilo was in deft touch and proved a real handful, weaving and slicing his way through the Fijian midfield at will to set up tries for captain Samiu Vahafolau and Taufa.
Things got even better for Tonga within minutes of the restart when Morath converted a penalty try and added a penalty to extend the lead to 33-9, but Fiji launched a threatening comeback midway through the half with two scintillating tries.
Tonga not getting carried away
Fiji's first try started deep in their 22 and was launched by the brilliance of wing Vereniki Goneva, who weaved majestically through the Tongan defence, taking play up to halfway before offloading to his back row in support with second row Sekonaia Kalou finished off the move.
The sin-binning of prop Alisona Taumalolo gave Fiji renewed hope and within minutes flanker Malakai Ravulo had touched down under the posts to cut the deficit to 33-21.
Fiji were again camped on the Tongan line threatening to score their third try when a turnover resulted in Tongan flyer Viliame Iongi – who scored four tries on his Test debut in last month’s Churchill Cup – running the length of the field to score under the posts.
The try guaranteed Tonga’s fifth Pacific Nations Cup victory in five years – four of which have come against Fiji – but there was still time for Taumalolo to touch down just before the final whistle.
"I don't think the score reflected the tightness of the game. There were a couple of lucky tries which made the score look bigger than it should have. We won't kid ourselves, we have plenty of work to do,” said Tonga coach Isitolo Maka.
Fiji coach Samu Domoni was not making any excuses for the result. "I can't fault our preparation for the game and the boys stuck to the game plan. We just didn't execute the basic skills well today and that hurt us.”
SAMOA 34-15 JAPAN
Samoa kicked off the defence of their Pacific Nations Cup title with victory over Japan at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Ground in Tokyo on Saturday.
Alesana Tuilagi crossed in the second and 14th minutes as the Samoans made the most of some poor one-on-one tackling to lead 17-0 with 15 minutes on the clock and the Japanese never really recovered.
Japan also weren’t helped by their goal-kicking with two early penalties missed and it wasn’t until the 20th minute that they finally got on the scoreboard when Ryu Koliniasi Holani made the most of a strike against the head to go over from five metres out to give the crowd of 9,700 something to cheer about.
Shaun Webb kicked a penalty 12 minutes later only for Samoa to extend their lead when Manaia Salavea scored his side’s third try in the 34th minute.
A far better performance in the second half saw the Brave Blossoms close to 24-15 thanks to a good try by Takehisa Usuzuki as the Japanese backs finally stretched the Samoan defence.
With Japan camped on the Samoan line for an extended period it seemed John Kirwan’s charges were about to get within a score of the Samoans, but they were unable to turn all that pressure into points, with at least three opportunities wasted when the final pass failed to go to hand.
George Pisi scored rubbed salt into the wound by scoring against the run of play in the 59th minute as Samoa ensured there was no way back for Japan.
The action now moves to the Fijian capital of Suva next Saturday for two mouth-watering encounters between sides who will meet again in the pool stages of Rugby World Cup 2011 with Fiji facing Samoa and Tonga tackling Japan.