As they did last year, Junior Japan began with a win, outscoring Samoa A five tries to three to bag the bonus point, while all five points went to Fiji Warriors in the second match of the day as the hosts started the defence of their title with a 38-30 victory against Tonga A.
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JUNIOR JAPAN 34-31 SAMOA A
Number eight Tevita Tatafu (pictured) scored a hat-trick as Junior Japan withstood a late fight-back to beat Samoa A in a 65-point thriller.
Samoa A trailed by three scores heading into the final 15 minutes but scored two converted tries inside the last seven minutes to leave Junior Japan hanging on for victory.
“The Samoan players were huge compared to us, but I think we performed very well until the last 10 minutes when our concentration was not what it should be. That’s something we need to look at before our next game against Fiji Warriors,” said Junior Japan captain and hooker Kosuke Horikoshi.
All Junior Japan’s pre-match talk was focused on playing at tempo and taking the game to Samoa A from the off, but it was the Pacific islanders that scored first after just five minutes through second-row Talaga Alofipo.
Four minutes later, Junior Japan were back on level terms when the unstoppable Tatafu crossed for the first of his three tries. Naoto Saito added the conversion but Samoa A edged ahead again thanks to a penalty from the boot of captain Patrick Faapale.
The lead changed hands for the third time inside the first quarter when Saito landed his next kick at goal and the advantage swung firmly in Junior Japan’s favour when Tatafu, one of Japan’s best performers at last year’s World Rugby U20 Championship, crossed for his second try just after Samoa A winger Johnny Samuelu was sin-binned. Saito was on the money again with the conversion.
No further tries were scored in the first half but two more Faapale penalties to one from Saito made the half-time scoreline 20-14 to Junior Japan.
When second-row Koji Iino crossed for a try that Saito converted within two minutes of the re-start, Junior Japan stretched their lead to 13 points.
Samoa A pulled three back from the trusty boot of Faapale but when Tatafu completed his hat-trick on 64 minutes and Saito added the extras, it looked like it was game over.
The Samoans kept plugging away, though, and showed great character to grab a losing bonus point thanks to tries from Kaino Fuataga and Mikaele Tapili. Both tries were converted by Faapale, who finished with a personal haul of 16 points.
Finishing so close was of little consolation to Samoa A vice-captain and number eight Jeff Lepa. “I’m sure the boys will be disappointed in themselves that they gave a performance like that, especially in defence,” he said. “But I’m sure we’ll go away and take a lot from the game. Big up to Japan, they came out firing.”
FIJI WARRIORS 38-30 TONGA A
Tonga A trailed 31-9 five minutes into the second half but the Fiji Warriors opened the door for a spectacular comeback through their own ill-discipline.
The Tongans scored three unanswered tries – one while their hosts were down to 14 men – to close the gap to a point, but the Warriors sealed victory with a last-minute try from winger Lepani Raiyala (main picture), his second of the game.
Tonga A captain Sione Lololea, who spearheaded the revival with two second-half tries, was left to rue his side’s poor start. “We reminded the boys at half-time why we were there – to play hard and represent all the Tongan people back home and across the world,” he said.
While Warriors captain and flanker Mosese Voka acknowledged that his side’s performance was far from flawless, he was happy with the outcome.
“It’s a good start, it was important for us to win our first game as defending champions in front of our own fans,” he said. “Tonga always give us a physical game and today was no different. They made us fight right to the end.”
It only took Fiji 54 seconds to open the scoring, Voka leading from the front with the game’s first try. Only five more minutes had elapsed when scrum-half Seru Vularika darted over for their second try which, on this occasion, full-back Apisalome Waqatabu improved.
With the Warriors consistently falling foul of referee Faavae Neru at the breakdown, Tonga A were given regular opportunities to chip away at the lead, but fly-half James Faiva was only able to land three of his five kicks at goal in a first half that ended with Tonga conceding two more converted tries.
Eroni Vasiteri crossed in the 32nd minute to stretch their lead to 19-9 before Raiyala crossed to further underline their dominance.
The Warriors looked out of sight when John Stewart (pictured) dotted down in the 45th minute, but Tonga A took advantage of replacement forward Kalivati Tawake’s yellow card with a converted try for Lolohea.
Lolohea added another a few minutes after the home side had been restored to their full complement of players, before pacey back three replacement Tuikakavalu Ika set alarm bells ringing in the home ranks by scoring a 74th-minute try.
With Faiva adding the two points for the conversion, Tonga A trailed by the narrowest of margins but the Warriors showed their champion quality to close out the game thanks to Raiyala’s second try.
The action continues on Tuesday when Samoa A and Tonga A come face to face at ANZ Stadium, followed by a match-up between Junior Japan and Fiji Warriors.
Photo credit: Kitione Rokomanu/Zoomfiji