We report on the Fiji v Tonga game in Lautoka where the rivalry is intense on the pitch and the friendship close off it
Rivalry and friendship on show as Tonga beat Fiji
The curtain came down on three weekends of Tests in Fiji in fitting fashion: two teams linked arm in arm in a circle, kneeling in prayer.
The contest between Fiji and Tonga on the pitch at Churchill Park in Lautoka had been fierce in high temperatures – not only were players’ shirts sopping from the heat but so were there shorts – yet once the final whistle blew there was a show of togetherness. The islanders may be huge rugby rivals, but they also share a common bond in faith.
Fiji were crowned Pacific Nations Cup champions the previous week, but it was Tonga who came out on top in this one-off Test, securing their first win over the Fijians since 2011.
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The 27-19 victory was built on their physicality in defence and at the contact area, particularly in the second half when their replacements made a big impact.
Fiji are known for their running and offloading game, but smothered by Tongan tacklers they were unable to get accurate passes away. There were spilled balls and thus turnovers aplenty – a sign of the slipperiness of the ball in the heat as well as the effectiveness of tackles.
Tonga captain Sonatane Takulua, the Newcastle scrum-half whose goalkicking was crucial to the win, explained that coach Toutai Kefu had called on the players to produce a performance of the same power as Tongan displays of the past.
“He wanted us to play how Tonga played back in the day and we did that,” said Takulua. “We’ve got good ball-carriers and good tacklers in the team, and I’m just proud of the boys.
“The key for the win was to bring line speed up to Fiji. We know they play an offloading game, so we looked to get two-on-one tackles and tried to be up in their faces in defence.
“I’m very emotional. This is huge – most of us, including myself, haven’t beaten Fiji in our careers, so this is a proud moment.”
The win was made particularly sweet given that it was on Fijian soil after Fiji had beaten Tonga in Naku’alofa last year.
Still, it wasn’t all bad for Fiji. Lock Viliame Mata scored a spectacular long-range try after being released by Jale Vatubua and their scrum again performed well, as it had against Georgia the previous week.
In fact, had they decided to opt for scrums rather than quick taps from a couple of free-kicks towards the end of the first half they may well have been able to exploit their dominance in that area and turned it into points.
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Coach John McKee pointed to his team’s inaccuracy as their biggest issue. “Credit to Tonga – they really put us under the pump and prevented us from playing our game when we needed to,” said McKee. “They probably won the physical battle.
“We created a lot of line breaks but didn’t convert them into pressure or points, and that’s pretty disappointing. Our execution let us down. We have to look after the ball better and support the ball-carrier in contact, so we can clear the threat and make the ball available.
“Games come down to critical moments, they come down to executing skills under pressure.”
Fiji will be looking to execute better when it comes to their November Tests while Tonga will want to take the confidence of this win into their autumn fixtures.
What was refreshing once this international period came to an end was the interactions between players and fans. While stories from South Africa have focused on testy exchanges, it was quite the opposite here.
The pockets of Tonga fans in the main stand were joyously waving their flags at the end to the delight of the national team, while the Fiji team circled the pitch to applaud their supporters and were cheered loudly off the pitch despite the defeat.
As well as the mutual respect, the passion for rugby is huge. That much was evident from the swarms of kids playing on local pitches en route to the game in Lautoka.
Still, it isn’t all smiles in Pacific Islands rugby – as this tweet from Tonga’s Cooper Vuna demonstrates:
There’s plenty of talent on the pitch for the Pacific Islands but there are a plethora of problems off it. Look out for Rugby World’s in-depth report into that at the end of July.
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