By Greg Thomas in Apia
Samoa and Tonga played out an entertaining, drama-packed, 18-18l draw in front of a packed house in a hot and steamy Apia.
It was hard to separate the two teams and the result was a fair reflection on the match. However, the more experienced Samoa side must have been disappointed to be outscored two tries to one.
With veteran captain Nili Latu leading the way Tonga showed great enterprise and more enthusiasm than Samoa especially in the first half and went to the break with a seven-point lead.
Samoa looked very lethargic early on despite having a host of its overseas professional players in the starting XV. Indeed the first 20 minutes saw Tonga dominate the breakdown and play more direct rugby whereas Samoa were lateral in attack and found it hard to break the defensive line.
Against the run of play, Samoa missed a kickable penalty after 15 minutes before Tonga’s hard work and off-loading was rewarded five minutes later. Tonga won turnover ball at a ruck on halfway, play was switched right and wing Otulea Katoa scored in the corner. Fly half Latiume Fosita kicked the conversion.
Samoa tried to pick up the pace but still lacked cohesion. With the Tonga defence tackling strongly the only cutting edge was provided by wing Fautua Otto. After exciting the home crowd with one swerving run, Otto then received the ball in centre-field on halfway from a teammate following a Tongan clearing kick. Finding himself in space he took off, beat two would-be tacklers with pace, dummied the next before outsprinting the cover defence to score in the right corner. Fly half Tusi Pisi missed the kick and it was 7-5 to Tonga.
Tonga’s determined defence was then rewarded in the Samoa 22 when second rowJosh Afu charged down an attempted clearance kick from scrum half Jeremy Sua from a lineout. The ball popped up and he grabbed it to crash over after 38 minutes. Fosita missed the conversion but Tonga went into the interval 12-5 ahead.
Territorially the match was even but Samoa had enjoyed 65 percent possession in the first half. This was nullified by a turnover count of 6-0 in Tonga’s favour. Samoa coach Stephen Betham had to find answers and shortly after the restart he threw on Northampton scrum half Kahn Fotuali’i. It was one of several changes made by both coaches in the hot conditions but one that made the most difference.
Samoa looked far more cohesive and Fotuali’i posed far more threat to the Tongan defence as the match became a real arm-wrestle. Tonga were still sharper at the breakdown and in counter-attack while Samoa started to dominate the scrum.
The first score of the second half took its time coming and was a penalty to Pisi after 20 minutes of play to make the score 12-8. The match then became far more open in the last 20 minutes as the teams tired and mistakes started to creep into the play. The Tonga defence started to drop off a few tackles and at last Samoa managed to build up several minutes of pressure in the Tongan 22. Finally, after numerous phases, the ball was moved left to captain and wing David Lemi who outflanked the stretched defence to score after 65 minutes. Pisi converted to give Samoa the lead for the first time, 15-12.
Samoa see yellow
Undeterred Tonga hit straight back when replacement three-quarter Fetu’u Vainikolo stormed into the Samoa 22 after beating three defenders. Two phases later Samoa killed the ball, replacement prop Census Johnston was yellow-carded, and Fosita kicked a penalty to level the match at 15-15.
With five minutes remaining both teams looked increasingly tired and Lemi nearly scored again after a clever cross kick from Pisi. From the resulting lineout, superb Samoa defence created a turnover in the Tonga 22 and was rewarded with a scrum. After some scrappy loose play by both teams Samoa was finally awarded a penalty by referee Wayne Barnes. Pisi kicked the goal and Samoa led 18-15 despite being a man down.
With Samoa seemingly heading for a hard-earned win, ill-discipline led to Barnes awarding Tonga a penalty near halfway when the home team illegally pulled down a lineout. Replacement Fangatapu Apikotoa stepped up and kicked the long-range penalty to level the scores and earn Tonga a well-deserved draw.