Fiji Warriors sit on top of the World Rugby Pacific Challenge table on points difference from Junior Japan after both sides opened their campaigns with bonus-point wins.
Nineteen tries were scored across the two matches at the ANZ Stadium in Suva on Friday, with the host nation and defending champions accounting for 10 of them in their 56-14 victory over Tonga A.
The opening game of the tournament was a more even affair with Samoa A left to lament a slow start as they fell to a 31-21 defeat to last year’s runners-up, Junior Japan.
The Pacific Challenge continues on Tuesday 12 March, beginning with Tonga A’s match against Samoa A. Fiji Warriors and Junior Japan then go head-to-head in a tussle that could well decide the destiny of the title.
JUNIOR JAPAN 31-21 SAMOA A
Junior Japan fought off a fierce fightback from Samoa A to get their campaign off to a winning start.
Last year’s runners-up had built up a 24-7 lead with just over half an hour left to play but, using a clever tactical kicking game, Samoa A clawed their way back into the match and got to within three points of their opponents as the clock ticked down.
However, leading from the front, number eight and captain Shota Fukui ensured Junior Japan bagged all five points when he crashed over for his second of the match and his team’s fourth try with just over three minutes left to play.
“Beforehand, we knew that Samoa are a very strong team, so we tried to play a very fast game against them,” said Fukui.
“We know that our next game will also be a very good game as the Fijians are very fast and skilful.”
For opposing captain Afa Aiono the post-match feeling was one of disappointment. “We’re disappointed with the loss against Junior Japan. We were hoping to do better but when we came back in the second half, we still didn’t fix those mistakes. Junior Japan gave us a lot of pressure and they dominated a lot of the set-pieces.
“I think our high balls were quite good and we were able to put them under pressure there, so there are quite a few positives as well. We just need to go back and work on the basics for the next game.”
Junior Japan took a 10-7 lead into half-time after scrum-half Naoto Saito kicked a penalty and then converted a try from outside-centre Siosaia Fifita. Samoa cut the deficit to three points in the 27th minute when number eight AJ Sagaga crossed the line and D’Angelo Leuila slotted the extras.
Samoa A were rocked on their heels, though, at the start of the second half, Junior Japan adding two more tries through fly-half Tomoki Kishioka and Fukui in the space of eight minutes, both of which were converted by Saito.
Trailing by three scores, Samoa A found a response and a brace of converted tries from winger Simon Fauoo put them in with a chance of victory until Fukui intervened late on.
FIJI WARRIORS 56-14 TONGA
Wingers Tira Patterson and Veramu Dikidikilati both scored a brace of tries apiece and there was also a double for loose-head prop Eroni Mawi as Fiji Warriors began their title defence in style with a 10-try victory.
In reality, the margin of victory could have been wider had the home team not spurned a number of opportunities in the first half and wasted 14 points from the kicking tee.
However, Fiji found their attacking stride after the break while also keeping the opposition scoreless to run out comfortable winners.
Reflecting on the win, first-time Warriors captain and scrum-half Frank Lomani said: “Firstly, I want to thank the boys for the massive effort tonight. Also, I would like to thank our opposition, Tonga, for a physical game and a good one. We could have score heaps of scores in the first half, but we made lots of mistakes, but one good thing about rugby is that we have another chance to prove ourselves.
“The Fijian way of rugby hurts us sometimes with the 50:50 balls but we’re going to improve that against Japan and Samoa next week. I think, just as last year, whoever wants the tournament more wins it, and we’re just planning to come in humble and as the underdogs – playing it how we play.”
For Tonga A’s assistant coach Fatu Vaisuai, the defeat is all part of the learning process for his inexperienced side.
“TheFijians changed their game plan, and that’s why it was pretty hard for us to get some tries in the second half. The boys are all local players, and we are trying to develop them and I think they did well. In the future, I think that we will need to iron out a few things that we’ve learned after this game.”
It looked ominous for Tonga A when Fiji Warriors scored two unconverted tries within the first seven minutes through Mawi and Patterson. But, shortly after, fly-half Liueli Simote converted his own try to put the men in red right back in it.
A second try for Tonga A followed through full-back Asefoso Vahe, right on the stroke of half-time, but by then Fiji Warriors had already added three of their own, number eight Johnny Dyer, winger Dikisikilati and tight-head Luke Tagi all getting their names on the scoresheet.
With fly-half Caleb Muntz missing both his attempts at goal and inside-centre Enele Tikotani slotting two out of three, in addition to a number of dropped passes, the Warriors left plenty of points out there and had to settle for a 29-14 half-time lead.
Second-row Peni Naulago scored within a minute of the restart as Fiji Warriors looked to assert their control. Again, Tikotani was unable to land the conversion.
Approaching the hour mark, the home side’s dominance hadn’t been converted into further points, but they belatedly found another gear to run away with the contest. Replacement back Samusamuvodre Tuidraki started and finished the four-try blitz with Dikidikilati and Patterson scoring their second tries of the match in between.
After a further miss from Muntz, the goal-kicking duties were handed to replacement Simi Kuruvoli who fared little better with a success rate of just one from three.