By Indra Singh, in Suva
Fiji and Japan have blown the 2011 IRB Pacific Nations Cup wide open with impressive wins over Samoa and Tonga respectively in the second round of games, in the Fijian capital Suva.
Against all odds, Fiji recovered from their opening loss against Tonga to overcome defending champions and Pacific rivals Samoa 36-18, while a physical Japanese side overcame first round leaders Tonga, 28-27.
The results mean Tonga leads the table with six points followed by Samoa, Fiji and Japan, who are tied with five points each.
The last round of matches will see Tonga play Samoa, while Fiji battles Japan.
The results also mean Fiji and Japan have taken a mental advantage over their opponents as Fiji and Samoa are both in Pool D at next year's Rugby World Cup alongside South Africa, Wales and Namibia, while Tonga and Japan will also line up in the same pool alongside New Zealand, France and Canada in Pool B.
Fiji 36-18 Samoa
The talking point in Suva was the turn around by the Flying Fijians. With pressure on Fiji coach Sam Domoni after the loss to Tonga, his brigade stepped up from the opening whistle.
Both teams mixed it up in the middle but it was against the run of play that former Fiji sevens skipper Vereniki Goneva intercepted the ball from deep inside his 22 to sprint away for the opening try. Nicky Little’s conversion made it 7-0.
However, two successive penalties by Tasesa Lavea got the Samoans back into the match but Little added another penalty after Samoa infringed at scrum time to make it 10-6.
However, from a nothing kick Samoan wing Sailosi Tagicakibau gathered and broke away to score a try for his side and the visitors took a 11-10 lead.
Unforced errors were the downfall for both sides and there was further blow for Samoa as they lost Filipo Levi to the sin bin for stamping on a Fijian player.
This gave Fiji an added edge and the side managed to get a try just before half time through prop Campese Ma’afu after several phases of play. Little converted to make it 17-11 at half time.
After the restart, Fiji cranked up another gear and outplayed Samoa in all facets, Goneva setting up inside centre Ravai Fatiaki for his first ever international try.
Little missed the conversion but Fiji led 22-11. Samoa threw on the replacements but to no avail as indecisive play was their main enemy.
The little chance Samoa had to come back was shattered when Fiji full back Taniela Rawaqa intercepted deep in his 22 to sprint away under the posts and replacement fly half Waisea Luveniyali added the extras to make it 29-11.
Samoa did score through Timoteo Iosa but Fijian lock and former Otago player Sekonaia Kalou pounced on a loose ball and beat the cover defenders for the final try, which was converted by Luveniyali for the final 36-18 score.
“We had an action plan that we had to follow through the week after the Tonga game to rectify all our mistakes,” said Fiji coach Sam Domoni.
Japan 28-27 Tonga
Tonga came into the match against their World Cup pool opponents brimming with confidence but knew from the opening whistle they were in for a torrid afternoon.
It was surprising for fans at the National Stadium to see the physicality of the Japanese and this was rewarded when number 8 Ryukoliniasi Holani crashed over from a quick free kick tap. James Alridge converted to make it 7-0.
Tongan super boot Kurt Morath added a penalty to make it 7-3 before Tonga had a change in their fortunes when flanker Viliami Maafu charged down a clearing kick to score their first try, which Morath converted to make it 10-7.
Tonga quickly made it 17-7 when Morath intercepted a Japanese pass and scored a converted try.
Just before half time, Justin Ives got Japan back into the match as a forward drive ended with a try towards the corner flag, which Alridge converted to make it 17-14 at half-time.
On the resumption of play, Japan played a better controlled game and took on the Tongans upfront with their own style of play under the hot Suva sun.
Skipper Takashi Kikutani finsished off a strong forward drive to score a try, which Alridge converted to make it 21-17. Centre Koji Taira then added more misery for the Tongans with his converted try to make it 28-17.
Tonga threw the kitchen sink at Japan but were just not able to penetrate the defence of the Asian champions.
Morath added a penalty to make it 28-20 and then Tonga camped inside the Japan 22 for 10 minutes before finally registering a try for Hudson Tongauiha, which Morath converted to make it 28-27 before time ran out.
“Tonga is the most improved side in the tournament so far and got a good win against Fiji last week,” said a delighted Japan coach John Kirwan.
“We knew that this was a big game for us. I am really happy with the courage our boys showed. The Japanese style of rugby is running around. I am very pleased what the players showed.”
Tonga coach Isitolo Maka added: “I’m just very disappointed. I think we were just going through the motions of last week. Some of our players didn’t front up and it was a concern. We’re still in the hunt for the PNC so hopefully we will come out harder on Wednesday.”