Fiji defeated Samoa 39-29 in a thrilling final at the Swangard Stadium in Burnaby to claim their second Pacific Nations Cup crown and head into RWC 2015 full of confidence
Second-rower Leone Nakawara grabbed two of his side’s five tries with the others coming from influential scrum-half Niko Matawalu, Kini Murimurivalu and Akapusi Qera in a see-saw contest that saw Fiji race into a 17-3 lead before being reeled back in by Samoa. But just as the physical Samoans appeared to have taken control of the contest, Fiji came storming back with three quickfire tries that saw them reclaim the initiative and pull clear.
Captain and flanker Qera was understandably delighted with Fiji’s first win in five attempts against their great rivals, which sets them up nicely for the Rugby World Cup curtain-raiser against England at Twickenham on 18 September.
“The PNC is a major part of our build up towards the Rugby World Cup and to win the tournament is a major plus for us,” Qera said.
“We will now go back home and enjoy a few days off with family, then it will be back in camp to focus on the England game. We know that it is not going to be easy against England. We are in a pool that has been labelled as a pool of death, and we will survive that pool.”
Fiji’s attacking intent was evident from the off, Nakawara wreaking havoc with his first touch before starting and finishing off a free-flowing move for the first try on two minutes. Josh Matavesi, who made good the conversion, traded penalties with his opposite number Michael Stanley before Matawalu snapped up loose possession from a lineout to race away for Fiji’s second try. Matavesi tagged on the extras for a 17-3 lead.
Two Stanley penalties brought Samoa back within touching distance at the break, and their situation improved again shortly after the re-start when flanker Jack Lam muscled his way over the line, Stanley's conversion making it a one-point game.
With the momentum behind them, Samoa looked on course to claim a treble of Pacific Natons Cup titles following wins in 2010 and 2012 when winger Fa'atoina Autagavaia stepped inside three defenders to dot down in the corner and hand Samoa the lead for the first time in the match with half an hour still to go.
The introduction of Ben Volavola from the bench helped to tip the balance back in Fiji's favour, the fly-half’s crossfield kick setting up Nakawara for his second and then another two tries, from full-back Murimurivalu and leader Qera, put them 36-24 in front and seemingly out of sight.
A second try for Autagavaia while Fiji were down to 14 men set up a grandstand finish but Volavola ensured local bragging rights and the PNC title went the way of Fiji by cooly stroking over a penalty from wide out with three minutes to go.
"We came back well at the start of the second half but a few mistakes here and there and a few missed tackles let the Fijians in again," said Samoa scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i. "With the way the Fijians play, they can score from anywhere, which they did.
"It is disappointing and hurtful to lose but our skipper and management told us to keep our heads up because we have got more big challenges ahead of us."
Samoa coach Stephen Betham was equally magnaminous in defeat. “All credit to Fiji they wanted the win more than us, the ball bounced their way and they took their chances.
“It’s unfortunate for us that we’ve come up with the loss, but everything’s geared up for the World Cup and we’re taking a lot of learnings out of this as we build to the World Cup.
“We came here to test our depth and to put a few new players under the pressures of playing at test level and in a tournament environment. From that point of view we achieved what we set out to do. “
‘Ikale Tahi finish third
Sixteen points from the boot of Kurt Morath and tries from Halani Aulika, Fetu’u Vainikolo and Sonatane Takulua saw Tonga secure a hard fought 31-20 victory over Japan in the opening match of the day at the Swangard Stadium.
Both teams came out hard, and were reasonably evenly matched in the early exchanges with Morath kicking one penalty to two from his Japanese counterpart Ayumu Goromaru.
With both captains – Nili Latu (24th minute) and Michael Leitch (three minutes later) – in the sin bin, Aulika powered over on 29 minutes from a maul close to the Japan line, Morath's conversion making it 10-6.
But Japan responded immediately and a great break by Karne Hesketh was finished off by replacement forward Hendrik Tui. However, two more penalties from Morath saw Tonga lead 16-11 at the break.
Japan regained the lead early in the second through two penalties from Goromaru but it was short lived as Fetu'u Vainikolo crossed following some good work by the Tongan pack.
Morath and Goromaru then exchanged penalties to keep it a four-point game at 24-20.
But the 70th minute sin binning of Hayden Hopgood for pulling a man down in the lineout, proved costly and Tonga made the most of their numerical advantage with man of the match Sonatane Takulua going over in the final minute.
“To finish the tournament with three wins is awesome,” said second-row Joe Tuineau. “It is a good building block towards the World Cup and everyone is really excited “
MacGinty stars for Eagles
AJ MacGinty hit a drop goal in the 80th minute as the USA edged Canada 15-13 in the North American derby to decide fifth place.
Canada had gone ahead in the 71st minute as Nick Blevins (pictured) pierced through the USA backline and ran over half the field for his second try in as many matches. Liam Underwood converted giving Canada a 13-12 lead.
However, USA got within sight of the 22, slowly inching towards the line before setting up MacGinty who split the posts to give USA back-to-back wins against their border rivals for only the fourth time in history.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in this tournament but we’ve stil got a long way to go,” was USA head coach Mike Tolkin’s honest post-match assessment. “It is important the guys know that, and I think they do.”
Reflecting on their fourth straight defeat in the tournament, Canada captain Aaron Carpenter said: “It’s another disappointing loss for us. We gave a full performance but I think we stopped playing a little bit at the end there. We let them come at us and we played scared at the end because we’ve lost a couple of tight games in the last couple of outings … test matches evolve around small little things.”
Three MacGinty penalties to one from Underwood made it 9-3 to the Eagles after 25 minutes, at which time USA lock Greg Peterson was sin-binned.
Canada's numerical advantage did not last long, however, as John Moonlight joined Peterson in the bin a couple of minutes later and MacGinty stretched the Eagles' lead to nine points with his fourth penalty.
Canada got the first points of the second half as Underwood converted a penalty that had been set up by a blazing Carpenter run and minutes later USA were down to 14 men again in the 49th minute as Danny Barrett went to the bin for a hit on Jeff Hassler. MacGinty was next to take a 10 minute breather just past the hour mark as ill-discipline continued to blight the contest, and despite having a man advantage for the majority of a 20-minute stretch, Canada couldn’t capitalise until the final minute of MacGinty’s yellow card as Blevins dived over.
As in previous matches, though, Canada were unable to close out the game leaving MacGinty the opportunity to become the Eagles' hero, which he took with aplomb.
“AJ has been playing great for us,” said USA captain Chris Wyles. “He showed a lot of composure with that drop goal and his game management has been superb. He’s a great kicker and a real asset. I’m really excited about him growing in this role with us.”
Monday's match was the first of two straight meetings between the two sides as they are set to face off again in a RWC 2015 warm-up fixture on 22 August in Ottawa.
photo credit: Lorne Collicutt