By Jon Newcombe
James Pritchard celebrated his first start in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup in impressive fashion with a 23-point haul as Canada repelled a late fight back from 14-man Tonga to win 36-27 in Kingston on Saturday afternoon.
Bedford Blues star Pritchard further extended his national points-scoring record with an unblemished display of goal kicking, the full back successfully converting all seven of his attempts at goal as well as scoring a well-worked second-half try.
Following their third straight win in the competition, the Canucks are now six points clear of Fiji and Tonga at the top of the PNC standings having played one match more than the Islanders. They conclude their programme with a trip to Japan on June 19.
Kieran Crowley’s men turned in an accomplished performance in both attack and defence for two-thirds of the contest before falling away badly in the latter stages to concede three tries inside the last 15 minutes.
Their task was made all the easier by Tongan ill-discipline, which saw ‘Ikale Tahi reduced to 12 men for a short period midway through the second half.
“Our discipline let us down today, we can’t afford to have men sent off and sin-binned; that’s an area we’ve got to work on,” Tonga captain Nili Latu admitted post-match.
“We wanted this game so much and showed a lot of fight. There is a lot of belief and we still have two games left to play.”
There was no hint of the problems that lay ahead for Tonga when they took the lead with just one minute and 27 seconds on the clock.
Talismanic scrum half Taniela Moa’s cut out pass found Tukulua Lokotui wide on the right and he dotted down for a try which Kurt Morath brilliantly converted from the touchline.
Pritchard responded with two penalties for Canada and added a third shortly after Tonga prop Edmund Aholelei was sent off for punching.
Canada’s 9-7 interval lead could have been more had the outstanding John Moonlight – later named man-of-the-match - not had a ‘try’ chalked off after referee J P Doyle correctly ruled he was in front of Pritchard when gathering in his team mate’s kick.
Canada came out firing at the start of the second period, scoring twice in as many minutes through wings Matt Evans and Sean Duke. Evans’ score stemmed from brilliant work by livewire fly half Nathan Hirayama who danced his way out of his own 22 to put Evans away down the right touchline.
An ill-advised chip kick from Tonga captain Nili Latu led to the next score, his opposite number Aaron Carpenter gathering the ball in before linking up with Hirayama who changed the point of attack with a ball back inside to Duke.
A Morath penalty on 49 minutes momentarily halted Tonga’s decline, but they were on the back foot again two minutes later when Sione Piukala’s shoulder charge on Pritchard resulted in three points for Canada – taken by Ciaran Hearn while Pritchard was receiving treatment – and a yellow card for the Tonga centre.
Great footwork by Duke opened up space for Pritchard to get in on the act for a try which he converted to make it 33-20 to Canada.
Tonga’s problems were compounded when replacement back David Halaifonua was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle on Evans, who had to be stretchered from the field.
Tonga survived a six-minute period with 12 men with their line intact as both sides brought their bench players into play.
Viliame Iongi’s intercept 67th-minute try, converted by Viliami Hakalo, looked nothing more than a consolation.
But Tonga scored twice more, with Canada down to 14 men following Tyler Ardon’s sin-binning, to cause real anxiety amongst the 3,117-strong crowd at the Richardson Stadium.
First Fetu’u Vainikola went over and then Will Helu as Tonga closed the gap to 33-27 with six minutes of the tie remaining.
However the nerveless Pritchard closed the match out with his fourth penalty of the afternoon.
Ever-industrious Canada captain, Aaron Carpenter, who won his 50th cap, was a relieved man at the end.
He said: “It was closer than I would have liked it to be and my heart stopped a couple of times watching on the sideline. They started to play really well and scored a few times late in the game when we maybe ran out of gas a little bit. But we gutted it out and in the end it was a great win.”
Canada 36: Tries: (Evans (42), Duke (46), Pritchard (54); Conversions: Pritchard (3); Penalties: Pritchard (4), Hearn.
Tonga 27: Tries: Lokotui (2), Iongi (67), Vainikola (70), Helu (74); Conversions: Hakalo, Morath; Penalties: Morath.