Fiji have got their World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup campaign off to the perfect start with a 23-18 victory over Tonga in Suva on Saturday.
With incoming World Rugby Vice-Chairman Agustin Pichot in attendance, the Fijians overcame a 15-0 deficit to run in three second-half tries to beat a physical and spirited Tonga team.
With the additional motivation of Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification places available to the top two teams in the Pacific Nations Cup over a two-year period, the action was always going to be compelling and the teams did not disappoint.
In the Suva sun, the action was as hot as the weather with both teams throwing caution to the wind in the opening exchanges.
The Tongans were irresistible with wave upon wave of early attacking rugby, led from the front by evergreen captain Nili Latu, resulting in an early penalty for Sonatane Takalua.
With Fiji unable to get a foothold, Tonga continued to press and made a big statement with two tries in the space of three minutes with impressive winger Viliame Iongi opening the account after impressive footwork close to the line and shortly after Takalua added the extras he was scoring Tonga’s second try on 30 minutes, which he again converted for a 15-0 half time lead.
In a remarkable match of two halves, the second 40 also delivered a story of two quick tries as fly-half Ben Volavola got Fiji off the mark in the 45th minute, converted by Seremaia Bai, before number eight Nemia Soqeta powered over in the 50th minute to bring the hosts to within three points.
Tonga and Fiji then exchanged penalties before Bai levelled the match at 18-18 in the 71st minute. The final nine minutes were frantic, but the experienced Veroniki Goneva delighted the home support with a try in the 75th minute, which Bai converted to secure a dramatic win.
The match was also significant as it marked the 71st test match for referee Nigel Owens, who surpassed Jonathan Kaplan as the world’s most-capped referee. It was a day of celebration for the Welshman, who was also awarded an MBE for services to sport in the Queen’s birthday honours.
Meanwhile, Samoa drew 19-19 with Georgia in an historic match for Los Lelos, playing their first-ever test match in the Pacific Islands as part of a World Rugby-funded competition programme. The Georgians will play all three Pacific Island teams on consecutive weekends.
Highlights will be available via worldrugby.org and the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup continues on 18 June when Samoa are the visitors to Suva to take on Fiji.