A new name was written on the IRB Pacific Nations Cup in 2013 after Fiji claimed the title for the first time following a 34-21 victory over Tonga on the final day, a fitting way to celebrate the Fiji Rugby Union’s centenary year and “a touching achievement” in the words of captain Akapusi Qera.
The Fijians were one of three teams that went into the final day of the new-look competition with a chance of lifting the silverware, safe in the knowledge that victory – or a draw with a bonus point for scoring four tries – would see them succeed Samoa as champions. A loss and Tonga would claim the title, while a low scoring draw would have been enough for Canada to be crowned champions.
It was an exciting climax to a tournament which had been expanded to include USA and Canada for the first time, underscoring the International Rugby Board’s long-term commitment to boosting the Tier Two competition schedule and competitiveness of the Game. Matches were played in four countries – Canada, Fiji, USA and Japan – with Japan coach Eddie Jones confident that “the physical nature of Canada and USA plus the Pacific flair of Fiji and Tonga will make for a compelling tournament.”
Samoa took a sabbatical from the Pacific Nations Cup in 2013 to take part in a quadrangular tournament in South Africa in June alongside the Springboks, Scotland and Italy after earning their spot as the highest ranked Tier Two nation in 2012, which left Japan as the only other winner in the competition’s history involved.
The Brave Blossoms, who beat Fiji to the title in 2012, had the honour of hosting the first match in Yokohama on 25 June, the first ever Test match in the city where rugby was first played in Japan. However, their hopes of setting a new record of seven consecutive Test victories were ended by Tonga, who ran in four tries at the Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium to win 27-17.
The increased physicality of Tonga, in comparison to the sides they had faced in retaining the HSBC Asian 5 Nations title a few weeks earlier, had Japan on the back foot from the start and Jones admitting afterwards that his side had “played in the first half like we had a hangover, we were still playing like we were playing Asian rugby”.
Later that same day, nearly 5,000 miles away, Canada and USA made their PNC debut at a wet and windy Ellerslie Rugby Park in Edmonton, each eager to strike a psychological blow ahead of their back-to-back Rugby World Cup 2015 qualifiers in August that would determine the Asia 1 qualifier. The conditions were not conducive to attacking rugby, but it was Canada who emerged the 16-9 winners, John Moonlight scoring the only try in the match.
Japan then travelled to Lautoka to face Fiji in a match which saw wing Hirotoki Onozawa win his 80th cap to become his country’s most capped player. The occasion was not marked by a victory, though, as Fiji ran out 22-8 winners in extremely wet conditions at Churchill Park, wing Sireli Bobo taking just 33 seconds to announce his return to the international stage after a three-year absence to score the opening try.
While Japan returned home to prepare for a two-Test series with Six Nations champions Wales, Fiji headed straight to North America to face Canada four days later. Canada took the match to their visitors from the outset and were rewarded when captain Aaron Carpenter scored their first try, breaking Al Charron’s national record for the most Test tries by a forward. Fiji’s powerful runners found it difficult to find a way through the resolute Canadian defence and despite Qera’s try making for a nerve-racking end to the match, it was the hosts who ran out 20-18 winners to remain unbeaten after two matches.
Canada barely had time to celebrate a first win over Fiji since 1995 as just three days later they were back in action against Tonga in Kingston. Full back James Pritchard contributed 23 points to the Canadian cause in the 36-27 victory as Tonga paid the price for ill-discipline with prop Edmund Aholelei sent off and two other players yellow-carded. Tonga, though, did give Canada a scare, scoring three tries in the last 15 minutes as their hosts tired.
“It was closer than I would have liked it to be and my heart stopped a couple of times watching on the sideline,” admitted Carpenter. “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 took a breather with a six-point lead at the top of the standings as Tonga headed to California to tackle the USA Eagles. The Ikale Tahi returned to winning ways with dominant and clinical display, Sione Piukala scoring a brace in the 18-9 win as the hosts paid the price for too many unforced errors.
The teams then headed to Japan for the climax of the competition with double headers taking place in Nagoya and Tokyo. Fiji did all they could do to keep their title hopes alive with a bonus point, 35-10 victory over the winless USA in the driving rain, but knew that a Canadian win over hosts Japan in match two at the Municipal Mizuho Park Rugby Ground would see the Canucks crowned champions.
Canada led 3-0 after half-time with their tactic of using the conditions to slow the ball down at the breakdown and prevent Japan from playing their fast-paced game. The Japanese, who came into the match on a high after beating Wales to claim a first scalp over a top 10 nation, battled back and snatched a 16-13 win courtesy of Ayumu Goromaru’s penalty eight minutes from time.
Japan’s win meant Canada had a nervous wait to see if they had done enough to lift the title. In the end, after Fiji recovered from an early 11-0 deficit against Tonga to match Canada’s record of three wins and one defeat in the competition. The fact that Fiji had secured four bonus points – three of them for scoring four tries or more – to Canada’s one meant that the trophy would return to the Pacific Islands for the third time in four years.
With the champions crowned, the final match saw Japan finish on a high with a 38-20 victory over USA at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, ensuring that the Eagles would not mark captain Todd Clever’s 50th Test with their first Pacific Nations Cup victory. It was a tough baptism for the Eagles, but they will be better for the experience and eager to find the winning formula next year.