By Indra Singh
Japan created history on the final day of the IRB Pacific Nations Cup, winning the title for the first time by beating tournament hosts Fiji 24-13 in Lautoka.
John Kirwan’s side headed into the third and final match day lying in fourth place and needed a bonus point victory to secure the title. That decisive try came deep in injury time to send the Japanese players, officials and fans into a frenzy of celebration.
Tonga had earlier beaten Samoa 29-19 to put one hand on the trophy before Japan broke their hearts.
Having beaten Tonga 28-27 last Saturday, the head-to-head result handed the title to the Asian champions despite them and Tonga being tied on 10 points each .
Japan 24-13 Fiji
After Tonga’s earlier win against Samoa, hosts Fiji started their match against Japan knowing that this year’s overall title was beyond their reach, but still they managed to shrug off that disappointment and start their final match at a roaring pace in front of their home fans.
An early Seremaia Bai penalty gave them a 3-0 lead before wing Napolioni Nalaga burst through the Japanese defence to make it 8-0, but indiscipline cost them dear.
Skipper Dominiko Waqaniburotu was sent to the sin bin for foul play before Fiji received the first of two red cards in the match, Sisa Koyamaibole sent off for dangerous play, and despite a rich advantage in the possession stakes, indiscipline and errors cost them any further scores in the half.
After the restart, Fiji’s woes continued as Bai was sent to the sin bin before Japan full back Go Aruga scored an unconverted try to make it 8-5.
Fiji hit back with Nalaga’s second try for a 13-5 lead, at which point Tonga were sitting pretty with one hand on the trophy, but from then on Japan kicked on and started their quest for the title.
Ryan Nicholas went over for a try, which replacement Shaun Webb converted to make it 13-12, before Fiji’s second red card - to centre Seru Rabeni for a high tackle – gifted the Japanese a two-man advantage, which they used to put Shota Horie in for their third try and a 17-13 lead.
Shortly afterwards Fiji were reduced to 12 men when replacement Waisea Luveniyali was sin binned and Japan rattled the Fijians with sterling forward play before replacement Yuta Imamura scored the crucial fourth bonus point try for Japan. Webb added the extras for the 24-13 win.
“This is big for Japan Rugby and Fiji gave us the chance as their discipline let them down,” said Japan coach John Kirwan.
“However, I salute my players for the effort and they did what I asked them at the break. Now it is the World Cup and there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Fiji coach Sam Domoni added: “Indiscipline let us down. That was the difference today. We will have to regroup and now focus on the All Black test and the two matches against Tonga before the World Cup.”
Tonga 29-19 Samoa
Earlier in the day, the two Pacific rivals gave it their all as the quest for the title began.
Defending champions Samoa needed to win, while Tonga knew that a bonus point win would secure them the PNC for the first time.
Tonga super boot Kurt Morath opened the scoring with a penalty before Samoa full back James So’oialo made it 3-3.
Morath added another penalty and straight from the kick-off Samoa wing David Lemi gathered a loose ball to score a try to make it 10-6 with So’oialo’s conversion.
However, Tonga got a penalty from Morath and an opportunist try from Chiefs prop Sona Taumalolo, which Morath converted to make it 16-10.
The Tonga number 10 then added another penalty to take his side 19-10 in the lead at half time.
After the restart three straight penalties to So’oialo made it 19-19 before a late Morath penalty and a Viliame Helu try gave the impressive Tongans a deserved 29-19 win.
“We have played well in the PNC but there is still lots of work to be done for World Cup,” said Tonga coach Isitolo Maka.
“We still have a few players yet to join and once they come in, we will be ready.”
Samoa coach Timitaea Tafua was disappointed with his side’s performance.
“We didn’t play to the game plan and the players will need to work hard in all the mistakes we have made in the Pacific Nations Cup,” he said.