By Rich Freeman
Samoa walked off with the IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2012 following an exhilarating tournament, based mainly in Japan.
Just a single score separated the teams in all five matches played in Nagoya and Tokyo, as the four nations fielded new teams as they began the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2015.
“I am lost for words,” said Samoa coach Stephen Betham, after his side had clinched the trophy with a thrilling 27-26 win over Japan at Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
“We knew Japan wouldn’t just give us the cup. We knew we had to win it off them. They played very well and forced us into making mistakes. They sure gave us a good fight.”
Betham had only been given the job a few weeks before the tournament and the Samoan coach paid tribute to his players and coaching staff.
“I sort of got thrown in at the deep end three weeks before we came here,” he said of his move from Samoa Sevens coach to head coach of the national team.
“It was a big shock and it’s been a big learning curve, but I am thankful I have a great management group and we have helped each other get through.”
Having opted to ditch a number of senior players, Betham picked nine new caps for Samoa’s opening game against Tonga at Mizuho Park Rugby Ground in Nagoya.
In a game riddled with errors, two mistakes from Tongan full back Viliami Iongi early in the second half gifted tries to Galuefa Falamore and David Lemi as Samoa made the most of the limited opportunities that came their way.
Japan were the defending champions but failed to win a match on home soil in 2012
Kurt Morath’s boot kept the Tongans in touch, but an inability to take their try scoring opportunities cost them the game.
“Obviously we are very disappointed with the result,” said coach Toutai Kefu. “But you saw the game, we didn’t deserve to win.”
Tonga captain Taniela Moa agreed, saying: “We had the opportunities to score but didn’t take them.”
In the second game in Nagoya, Fiji held on to beat the hosts and defending champions 25-19 to hand Eddie Jones his first loss as Japan coach.
Ayumu Goromaru had given Japan an early lead courtesy of three penalties, but the Fijians’ ability to make the most of Japanese turnovers saw Isake Katonibau and Waisea Nayacalevu both cross.
Vereniki Goneva's try in the second half proved to be the killer blow as the Fiji defence held firm, allowing Japan just a penalty try.
“That was by far the best lesson we’ve had this year,” said Jones. “They scored three tries from turnovers. So, while I am disappointed by the result, I am encouraged by the performance.”
Fiji coach Inoke Male said the result was the perfect start as his side looks to bounce back from a disappointing season in 2011.
“We are here to rebuild Fiji rugby,” Male said. “We all know what happened in the last World Cup and the boys all put in a great performance. The team morale was high and we did really good today.”
The second round of matches saw all four teams move to the nation’s capital for a doubleheader at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground.
In the opening match, Samoa captain Lemi led by example crossing twice as his side downed Fiji 29-26 to move within a game of claiming the title, having previously won it in 2010.
“Both teams gave it their all today,” said Betham. “The last few minutes were very competitive as Fiji never gave up, so I am very proud of my players.”
The two sides shared six tries between them and once again it was Samoan discipline that saw them through.
“We played some good rugby for the first 20 minutes, but then made too many unforced errors,” rued Male.
In the second game, Tonga outscored Japan three tries to two to win 24-20 and ensure former Wallaby number 8 Kefu got the better of his former coach Jones.
“It’s good to get the win, but whether we played well or not [I don’t know],” Kefu said. “But it’s good to finish on the right side of the scoreboard.”
Goromaru scored 15 of Japan’s 20 points, but Paula Kaho’s try in the 61st minute eventually proved to be the difference between the two sides.
“We made some elementary errors at crucial times in the game,” said Jones. “We gave them some ridiculously easy points and created enough opportunities to win the game.”
Fiji came out on top in the only match not played in Japan to finish runners-up to Samoa
With Fiji and Tonga not playing their final game until 23 June – to allow the Fijians the chance to play a one-off Test with Scotland – Samoa went into the final game in Tokyo knowing their fate was in their own hands.
A win, draw or even a two-bonus-point loss would hand them the silverware, while a big loss would see the trophy being shipped to Lautoka for either Fiji or Tonga to claim.
For the first 20 minutes, it seemed the unlikely might actually happen as Japan opened up a 16-0 lead, only for the Samoans to respond with 27 unanswered points of their own following a change in tactics.
“They [Japan] disrupted us at first when we tried to maul, so that’s why we changed our plan and sucked them in before driving,” said Lemi.
Kahn Fotuali’i crossed for Samoa’s first try before Faatiga Lemalu grabbed a brace as the Islanders looked to have wrapped things up midway through the second half.
A tremendous fight back by the hosts saw Takashi Kikutani and Toshiaki Hirose cross for five-pointers, but Ryan Nicholas’s conversion of Hirose’s last-minute try drifted right, handing the Samoans the game and the title.
“Full credit to Japan,” said Lemi. “Even though they didn’t win their three games they have performed well. We were lucky and had the bounce of the ball today, but they gave us a lesson. But hats off to my guys, they dug in and that’s what got us the result.”
Japan coach Jones was left to ponder what might have been. “We have lost three games in the PNC by six, four and one point,” he said. “We were playing the strongest side Samoa could have put out, with exception of Tusi Pisi. They knew exactly how we would play, but we put ourselves in a fantastic position at the start of the game to win it and then put ourselves in a fantastic position at the end of the game to win it. But the reality of it was we weren’t good enough to win.”
With nothing but pride to play for, Fiji and Tonga brought the curtain down on the 2012 tournament at Churchill Park in Lautoka with the home side securing the biggest winning margin in the six games played. Three second-half tries saw Fiji win 29-17 and finish as runners-up with Tonga third and Japan fourth.
IRB PACIFIC NATIONS CUP 2012 RESULTS
05/06/2012 Samoa 20-18 Tonga - Mizuho Park Rugby Ground, Nagoya
05/06/2012 Fiji 25-19 Japan - Mizuho Park Rugby Ground, Nagoya
10/06/2012 Fiji 26-29 Samoa - Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, Tokyo
10/06/2012 Japan 20-24 Tonga - Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, Tokyo
17/06/2012 Samoa 27-26 Japan - Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground, Tokyo
23/06/2012 Tonga 17-29 Fiji - Churchill Park, Lautoka