The 13th World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup got under way in Suva on Saturday, as Fiji kicked off their bid for a fourth successive title with a narrow victory over Samoa at the ANZ Stadium.
Samoa are preparing for a home-and-away Rugby World Cup 2019 play-off against the winner of next weekend’s European qualifier between Germany and Portugal, but had few answers as the hosts built a 24-3 lead early in the second half.
Titimaea Tafua’s side did rally in the final quarter, but despite conceding three tries in that period Fiji were able to hold on to claim a 24-22 win that puts them in the box seat heading into the second and final round of games on 16 June.
The hosts’ match against Georgia next Saturday will effectively now be a title decider after the European side beat Tonga 16-15 in the day’s opening contest.
It means Georgia head into that match with the chance to finish their first Pacific Nations Cup campaign on top of the pile.
Tonga 15-16 Georgia
Georgia arrived at their first Pacific Nations Cup on a six-game winning run and demonstrated why during the opening half in Suva as Soso Matiashvili scored a scintillating solo try to help give his side a commanding lead at half-time.
Matiashvili, no stranger to providing YouTube moments on a rugby pitch, pounced in the seventh minute as the ball came loose from a ruck inside the Georgian 22. The full-back pinned his ears back, sprinting down the left wing before putting in a grubber to beat Penikolo Latu on halfway, controlling the bouncing ball with his left foot and then diving on it over the goal-line.
Matiashvili converted his score and then added two penalties, either side of one from Tonga scrum-half Sonatane Takulua, to give Georgia a 13-3 lead at the break.
A scoreless third quarter was brought to an end as Matiashvili struck his third penalty of the game, but just as it looked like the Lelos were cruising to an opening day win, Tonga hit back to set up a nervy finish at the ANZ Stadium.
Tonga’s scrum had improved steadily in the second period and with less than 10 minutes remaining a strong push allowed prop David Lolohea to score. Takalua missed his conversion, however, meaning ʻIkale Tahi would need two more scores to snatch victory.
David Halaifonua did score in the left corner before the end, thanks to a lovely pass from fly-half Kurt Morath, with Takulua’s conversion narrowing the gap to just a single point with time running out.
It proved too little too late, however, as Georgia were able to see out their first ever Pacific Nations Cup victory and seventh in a row in all competitions.
The prize for Milton Haig’s men is a title showdown against Fiji next Saturday, with the winner taking the 2018 crown.
Fiji 24-22 Samoa
Samoa captain Chris Vui had spoken ahead of his side’s opener about the importance giving Fiji a stern test as they prepare to settle their World Cup destiny next month.
However, it appeared as though that had been a hollow rallying cry as Fiji built a 17-3 half-time advantage in front of a passionate crowd in Suva.
Samoa took the lead through a Tusi Pisi penalty, but were not in front for long as La Rochelle full-back Kini Murimurivalu scored the game’s opening try in the 25th minute.
Fiji fly-half Ben Volavola missed the conversion but showed his class with ball in hand within seven minutes as he sucked the Samoan defence in with a sublime dummy before sprinting over from 30 metres.
Pisi was unable to narrow the deficit from the kicking tee as half-time approached, and it would prove a costly miss as Fiji notched their third try soon after.
Scrum-half Henry Seniloli was the player who touched down, while Volavola’s second successful conversion ensured the hosts went into the break with a two-score lead.
The only blot on an otherwise impressive first-half display from Fiji being the yellow cards earned by Jale Vatubua and captain Akapusi Qera.
Veteran Newcastle winger Niki Goneva put Fiji in total control within 10 minutes of the restart as he finished well following an impressive aerial take from Murimurivalu.
Samoa found a way back into the contest as scrum-half Melani Matavao scored with just over 20 minutes remaining. Pisi converted the try to cut the deficit to 14 points, before a third Fijian yellow card, shown to replacement prop Eroni Mawi on his test debut, gave Manu Samoa further hope.
They wasted little time in making their numerical advantage count as Jack Lam powered over. Pisi would miss the conversion, however, meaning Samoa still needed to find two scores in a little over 10 minutes.
Dwayne Polataivaia provided a third Samoa try, which was converted by full-back Ahsee Tuala, but it left the visitors two points short of a memorable late comeback.
Instead Fiji were able to hold on to keep their hopes of a fifth Pacific Nations Cup title, and fourth in a row, in their own hands.