Pacific Nations Cup: Fiji Come From Behind To Beat Tonga

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In the Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) opening match against a tough Tongan side, Fiji have come from behind to win 23-18 to take a dramatic win. This was the first match of the PNC 2016 round of the World Rugby triangular tournament between Fiji, Tonga and Samoa to determine which side qualifies for 2019 Rugby World Cup, so it is an important series for all three sides.

The Toutai Kefu coached Tongan side did everything right in the opening half of this game, taking it to the hosts to lead 0-15 before a pep talk at the breather from the Kiwi ‘mastermind’ of the Fiji team John McKee helped the Flying Fijians recover the result. The pulsating game brought the 8,000 plus crowd at Fiji’s ANZ Stadium to their feet many times, as Fijian handling errors and some indecision saved the Tongans from what could have been an onslaught. The Fijians found their rhythm in the opening quarter of the second half, scoring two tries in the space of two minutes, that assisted them to victory.

The win is a stepping stone to automatic qualification to the Rugby World Cup to be hosted by Japan in 2019, as the top two teams from this year and next year’s 2017 PNC qualifies automatically while the third runner-up must go through a repechage tournament with an European team.

Tonga, which has a population of 109,000, had nine debutante players in the team that included Nafi Tuitavake who started at center (a former New Zealand Sevens representative) while Fiji had three new players including the 2014/2015 World Rugby ‘Sevens Player Of The Year’ Samisoni Viriviri running at fullback.

The game was a special one too for the man in control, as it was his 71st international game for Welshman Nigel Owens (pictured) who has now taken over from South African Jonathan Kaplan to be the most capped referee in World Rugby.

Fiji wins Pacific Nations Cup opener

It was tit-for-tat from the start, with the opening points coming from impressive halfback Sonetane Takalua in the 18th minute through a penalty and then spectacularly Pila ‘Iongi beat Adriu Delai one-on-one to cross over in the corner in the 26th minute. Takulua converted from the touchline, to give the Island Kingdom a 10-0 lead.

From the restart, with the Fijians still slipping off tackles, the Tongans went through the middle of the field from a dummy by playmaker Latiume Fosita which was finished off by Takulua. The conversion missed but they still held a 0-15 lead to the visitors. Tongan player Daniel Kilioni was binned after tackling Ben Volavola in the air but the Flying Fijians again failed to capitalize as they headed to the sheds with the Fijians just ‘not in the game’ trailing their South Seas Island neighbors.

The Fijians were struggling in the forwards, with Jack Ram, Sione Kalamafoni and Tongan ‘Captain Courageous’ Nili Latu exploiting and disrupting the Fijians at the breakdown. They were dominant in open play with some quick offloading which had the Fijians in sixes-and-sevens in the first half which they had to try to rectify in the second spell.

Fiji came to life in that second 40 minutes, as they got their spark back and were rewarded with a solo effort from Volavola, who cleverly danced his way through defenders to score under the posts. Converted by Seremai Bai for a 7-15 lead to Tonga, but they were back into it from the restart with quick balls and hard running that had Viriviri caught only meters from the corner touchline. Such good territory gained, from the lineout Fiji capitalized on loose ball and launched another attack and the Biarritz number eight Nemia Soqeta crashed over.

Unconverted, they trailed Tonga 12-15 but minutes later Tonga was awarded another penalty that was successful, for an 12-18 lead to the Ikale Tahi [the traditional Tongan team name] That lead was cut short minutes later through a penalty to Bai and the score was 15-18. Fiji was on fire now, with the backline having more clean ball and plenty of line breaks were being made from outside center Vereniki Goneva only to be let down by his supporting players who were nowhere near when the offload was on. Bai then added another penalty, that locked the teams at 18-18 after 71 minutes.

Debutant Eremasi Radrodro gave Fiji the lead for the first time in the game after some good continuity with replacement Suva halfback Seru Vularika. Quick passing was the key, with the Fijians benefiting from better field position to give them the 23-18 lead. The Fijians held on until the very end, as the Tongans continued to drive for the tryline in the last minute of play. Great defence gives Fiji the advantage leading into the final PNC round-robin match.

Head coach John McKee and forwards coach John Muir will be working hard with their group this week, especially the scrums as they try to stabilize that element as their ‘cornerstone’ Manasa Saulo is still on club duties with Toulon in France. Backs coach Andre Bell will try to mold his players to be more clinical in their finishing and overall execution.

Tonga should be commended for their valiant effort, and head coach Kefu will be happy with his debutantes, especially winger Iongi who ply his trade in the American Rugby Championship. He was devastating with the ball and his opposite Adriu Delai was ‘on his back’ all day long, as his ran hard and straight and literally ‘over him’ time and time again. With Talesa Vaeinu missing from the team, he was a able replacement along with Tuitavake, and those two will be the future of Tongan rugby especially in the backline, where they need depth as they have abundance of forwards coming through every year.

The standout player was Tongan halfback Takulua having a personal haul of 13 points, with a hand in most of the positive play from the first half along with Jack Ram (pictured) always a threat. While the Tongans still have work-on factors to their game, they will be happy with their first outing of the 2016 PNC and they will build on this as they tackle the touring Georgian International side next week at the same Suva venue, as the build-up match to the Fiji v Manu Samoa PNC game. That will be an enormous match and Last Word On Sports will follow all the matches in this triangular tournament.

Fiji XV – 15. Samisoni Viriviri 14. Patrick Osborne 13. Vereniki Goneva 12. Seremai Bai 11. Adriu Delai 10. Ben Volavola 9. Nemia Kenatale 8. Nemia Soqeta 7. Malakai Ravulo 6. Naulia Dawai 5. Leone Nakarawa 4. Tevita Cavubati 3. Leeroy Atalifo 2. Sunia Koto (c) 1. Campese Ma’afu

Reserves: 16. Viliame Veikoso 17. Peni Ravai 18. Taniela Koroi 19. Savenaca Tabakanalagi 20. Eremasi Radrodro 21. Henry Seniloli 22. Serupepeli Vularika 23. Benito Masilevu

Tonga XV – 15. Tevita Halifonua 14. Pila ‘Iongi 13. Nafi Tuitavake 12. Viliami Hakalo 11. Daniel Kilioni 10. Latiume Fosita 9. Sonetane Takulua 8. Sione Kalamafoni 7. Jack Ram 6. Nili Latu 5. Uili Kolo’ofai 4. Dan Faleafa 3. Sione Faletau 2. Elvis Taione 1. Eddie ‘Aholelei

Reserves: 16. Sione Anga’aelangi 17. Kama Sakalia 18. Fusi Malimali 19. Opeti Fonua 20. Sione Tau 21. Wayne Ngaluafe 22. Apakuki Ma’afu 23. Kali Hala

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Meanwhile in Samoa, the touring Georgia rugby team came from behind to hold Samoa to a 19-19 all  draw. It was the first of the European sides three games on their South Seas Tour–a terrific show of support for the Pacific rugby nations–while the Tier One unions in Europe blatantly refuse to undertake yearly.

“Main photo credit”