Fiji and Tonga set the tone for what promises to be a full-blooded and highly competitive World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2015 with a typically physical and entertaining encounter in humid conditions in Suva.
Crusaders-bound test rookie Ben Volavola fully justified his selection at fly-half with an impressive display of goal-kicking that brought him a personal haul of 15 points through three penalties and three conversions.
Each side scored three tries apiece with Henry Seniloli, Waisea Nayacalevu and Peni Ravai dotting down for the home side and Fetu'u Vainikolo, debutant Telusa Veainu and Sonatane Takulua finding their way onto the scoresheet for the 'Ikale Tahi in a game that was on a knife-edge throughout.
Vainikolo was first to cross the whitewash after Tonga's forwards, led by the impressive back row duo of captain Nili Latu and Hale T Pole, had made inroads into the Fijian defence with a number of pick and go's. The unconverted try gave them a 5-0 lead.
Volavola got Fiji on the scoreboard with a penalty having missed an earlier attempt to make it 5-3, but Tonga looked set to take a slender advantage into half-time with Fijian handling errors letting the 'Ikale Tahi off the hook.
A poor clearance kick as half-time approached, however, was returned with interest by Levani Botia who bulldozed his way past three would-be Tonga tacklers to set up Seniloli for Fiji's first try, Volavola tagging on the extras for a 10-5 lead. Tonga had the final word of the half when Sione Piukula kicked a penalty to narrow the gap to two points.
Tonga turned to their forward strength to regain control at the start of the second half, and tries from Veainu and Takulua, both converted by Vunga Lilo (pictured), put them in pole position at 22-16, with two Volavola penalties accounting for Fiji's points during that period.
Showing the composure that eluded them in last week's one-point loss against the Maori All Blacks, Fiji upped the tempo and used their bench effectively to turn the tide back in their favour. Replacement hooker Tuapati Talemaitoga was particularly impressive and his determined ball carrying got Fiji on the front foot again.
The lead changed hands for the fifth time in the match when Nayacalevu dived over in the corner for Fiji's second try and Volavola knocked over the conversion to make the scoreline 23-22 to Fiji.
Replacement fly-half Kurt Morath missed a penalty as Tonga pressed forward, and the game was eventually put out of the 'Ikale Tahi's reach when Ravai crossed with eight minutes to go.
Photo credits: Bruce Southwick/Zoomfiji