All four teams went into the final day of the IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2011 with the potential to be crowned champions, but ultimately it was Japan who became the first non-Oceania winners of the competition after beating hosts Fiji 24-13 in the final match.
That statement, though, doesn’t tell the whole story as were it not for replacement Yuta Imamura’s try at the death securing the crucial bonus point win Japan had needed then it would have been Tonga celebrating a first ever PNC title.
Instead, by virtue of a slender 28-27 victory over Tonga, it was the Japanese who got their hands on the trophy amid an outpouring of emotion after a difficult few months following the devastating earthquake and tsunami which had claimed so many lives.
Japan had been due to host the 2011 tournament in Tokyo, but the events of 11 March meant that only their opening match, against Samoa, was played at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, the other five matches all being moved to Fiji.
The tournament did not begin well for John Kirwan’s side with a 34-15 loss to Samoa, man mountain Alesana Tuilagi scoring two tries in the opening 15 minutes to ensure the Islanders made the best possible start to their title defence.
As they headed to Fiji the prospect of Japan adding to their HSBC Asian 5 Nations title seemed unlikely, but throw into the mix the chance to put one over their RWC 2011 Pool A opponents Tonga in a win-or-bust round two match and anything was possible.
Japan have certainly had the edge over Tonga in recent years and it was no different in Suva, captain Takashi Kikutani among the try scorers as the Brave Blossoms held of a late Tongan fight back to record their fifth successive win over the Ikale Tahi.
Tonga would finally stop the rot in their Rugby World Cup 2011 meeting, but at the time the Islanders could at least take comfort from the fact that a losing bonus point had kept them top of the standings with six points, one more than Fiji, Samoa and Japan.
Fiji fans created a great atmosphere but their team were unable to enjoy success on the field
It was the first time in the tournament’s six-year history that all four teams went into the final day in title contention, although Tonga’s 29-19 victory over Samoa in the first match at Churchill Park in Lautoka meant that only Japan could deny the Ikale Tahi the title.
Fiji, roared on by a vocal home crowd, made the better start with wing Napolioni Nalaga’s try helping them to a 7-0 lead after as many minutes, but ill discipline would ultimately be the Flying Fijians’ downfall.
Captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu was sin-binned and minutes later Sisa Koyamaibole received the first of Fiji’s two red cards in the match for dangerous play, but despite briefly playing against 13 men the Japanese were unable to capitalise and trailed 7-0 at the break.
A minute after the restart and Seremaia Bai took his place in the sin-bin, this time Japan were able to cross the try-line through Go Aruga, only to see Nalaga cross for his second try to increase Fiji’s advantage.
Ryan Nicholas cut the deficit with Japan’s second try, but once Seru Rabeni joined Koyamaibole on the sidelines after a high tackle the Brave Blossoms took the lead for the first time through Shota Horie’s try. The crucial fourth try still eluded Japan until, playing against 12 men after Waisea Luvenyali had been sin-binned, some sterling forward play resulted in Imamura’s try to snatch the title from Tonga’s grasp.
“This is big for Japan Rugby and Fiji gave us the chance as their discipline let them down,” admitted Kirwan afterwards. “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.”
Japan finished level on 10 points with Tonga, but their victory in the head-to-head encounter gave them the title, leaving their rivals to look back on a tournament that had begun so well with an emphatic 45-21 victory over Fiji.
It was Tonga’s first victory on the Pacific Nations Cup stage since a win against the same opponents in 2008, fly half Kurt Morath the lynch pin with a 20-point haul as all four sides looked for confidence boosts ahead of RWC 2011 a few months later.
There was less to smile about for Fiji and Samoa, who propped up the standings with only one win from their three matches. Fiji managed to avoid bottom spot by virtue of a 36-18 win over Samoa – a side they would lose to at RWC 2011 – but the defeats on home soil proved costly in the IRB World Rankings and contributed to a seven-place slide across the year to their lowest ever standing of 16th.
By contrast Tonga went from being the lowest ranked of the four nations at the start of 2011 to being the highest come the end of the year, thanks in no small part to their shock Pool A defeat of eventual RWC runners-up France, a win which took them into the top 10 for the first time and matched Fiji and Samoa’s best of ninth.
IRB PACIFIC NATIONS CUP 2011 RESULTS
02/07/2011 – Tonga 45-21 Fiji
02/07/2011 – Japan 15-34 Samoa
09/07/2011 – Tonga 27-28 Japan
09/07/2011 – Samoa 18-36 Fiji
13/07/2011 – Tonga 29-19 Samoa
13/07/2011 – Japan 24-13 Fiji