By Rich Freeman in Tokyo
Fiji claimed the IRB Pacific Nations Cup for the first time when they beat Tonga 34-21 at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Sunday.
“It's a touching achievement as it's been a big year for Fiji rugby,” said Fiji captain Akapusi Qera in reference to the Fiji Rugby Union's centenary year. “We lost control in the first half but came together in the second half and scored the maximum points we needed.”
Canada would have been hoping for torrential rain as only a low scoring draw would have handed them the title, but the Japan capital was bathed in sunshine for Sunday's double header.
While Fiji and Tonga tried to adopt an expansive approach, there seemed to be a lack of urgency from both sides early on, despite the silverware being up for grabs, though the longer the match lasted the better Fiji got. Tonga also paid the penalty for not kicking their points.
“We were very disappointed not to win,” said Tonga captain Nili Latu. “We wanted so bad to win but we weren't good enough. Fiji deserved to win."
Tonga got off to the perfect start with Thomas Palu knocking over a penalty in the second minute and Fraser Anderson touching down in the fifth following a good run by Latu.
Palu missed the conversion but he was on target five minutes later with a second penalty as Tonga went 11-0 up.
Fiji were struggling to make any inroads but a moment of individual brilliance changed things with Sireli Bobo using his pace to go over from halfway in the 22nd minute. Seremaia Bai added the extras as Fiji closed the gap to 11-7.
Fiji made the Tongans pay for Palu missing two kicks at goal, when a good break in the 33rd minute by Saula Radidi was finished off by Napolioni Nalaga, with Bai again on target with the conversion.
Tonga hit back though right on the half time hooter as Palu finally got his radar working and knocked over his third penalty as the teams went into the break all square at 14-14.
The start of the second saw Palu miss his third kick at goal and Fiji blow two try scoring opportunities, with Vili Veikoso knocked into touch just short of the line and Nalaga knocking on as he dived over.
Bai, however, made no mistake when Tonga were penalised in the 55th minute, the fly half knocking over a penalty from 38 metres out.
The match needed a spark and it duly arrived in the 62nd minute when a turnover by Api Naikatini close to his own line led to a 95-metre move downfield involving both forwards and backs that was finished off in spectacular fashion by Nemani Nadolo. Bai turned the five points into seven with the conversion as Fiji led 24-14.
Nalaga grabbed the bonus point try in the 68th minute following another enthralling passage of play, and with Bai slotting the conversion and a penalty in the 72nd minute, Tonga needed three converted tries to win.
They managed one through Latu with Siale Fahiua adding the conversion, but it was too little too late.
In the second match, Japan ensured they finished fourth as they beat the United States 38-20.
“I thought we played some really good rugby today,” said Japan coach Eddie Jones.
"If we were a bit sharper we could have scored a few more points but I'm very pleased.”
Yoshikazu Fujita opened the scoring in the sixth minute following good hands by Takashi Kikutani and Shota Horie. Ayumu Goromaru continued his good form of the previous week by knocking over the conversion.
Chris Wyles brought the teams level though when he converted his own try in the 15th minute following a period of play in which possession changed hands several times.
Both sides were playing their third test in eight days and there were plenty of missed tackles, one of which saw Eric Fry hand the United States the lead in the 20th minute.
Japan hit back, though, with Male Sa'u crossing in the 24th minute only for Wyles to kick a penalty seven minutes later as the Eagles led 15-12.
Japan, however, regained the lead three minutes before half time when Hendrik Tui powered through a ruck and sprinted over, Goromaru's conversion making it 19-15 at the break.
Toshikai Hirose scored three minutes after the restart as Japan came out firing, and the forwards were rewarded with a penalty try seven minutes later after the US scrum repeatedly collapsed.
Fumiaki Tanaka scored Japan's final try in the 61st minute, just reward for a good performance in both attack and defence, while Luke Hume grabbed a consolation effort for the Eagles.
“We played some of our best rugby in the last five games in the first half, but we needed to play like that for 80 minutes and we couldn't do it,” said Eagles captain Todd Clever, who was playing his 50th test for his country in what has become his home stadium since he started playing in Japan.