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Manu Samoa needed a try on the stroke of full-time by Sakaria Taulafo to snatch a 21-20 victory over Canada, the replacement prop catching a loose ball off a ricochet from a lineout to dive over and secure the final place.
Three yellow cards in the second half, including two in the last five minutes for forwards Leone Nakarawa and Campese Ma’afu, nearly proved costly for Fiji as a 24-9 advantage soon after the break came within a whisker of being wiped out by Japan.
Fiji had to hang on for a 27-22 victory, finishing the match with only 13 players as Japan came within inches of completing their comeback with another try.
THE Pacific Nations tournament comes to a conclusion on Monday when Fiji and Samoa front up in Sacramento in what should be another tight final.
That there’s little separating the two is evident from the 30-30 draw when they met in the round-robin after Fiji had led 17-10 at halftime.
Making a comeback later in a match though looks to be Samoa’s strength, with their 21-20 win over Canada in Toronto also made possible by a try on the stroke of fulltime.
Samoa’s win dashed Tonga’s hopes of making the final.
In the tournament’s history since 2006, Samoa have won twice and Fiji once.
The most titles – three – went to the Junior All Blacks while the NZ Maori won it once.
Also participating at one time were Australia A but after 2009, the tournament was confined to Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan. Canada and the United States joined in an expanded tournament in 2013.
For the record, the Junior All Blacks won all their 13 matches and NZ Maori all five. At the other extreme, Tonga have lost 23 out of 33 with one drawn while Japan have lost 22 of also 33 matches.
But off the field the news continues to be less encouraging for Samoa.
A recent report stated that the national union lost $1.5 million when they hosted the All Blacks in the first Test ever between the two to be played at Apia Park on last July 8.
Prime Minister and union chairman Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi told the press that total revenue from the match, including the sale of official merchandise, came to only US$1.9 million compared to the US$3.4 million spent.
According to Malielegaoi, players’ allowances made up the bulk of the expenditure. He further disclosed that the SRU needs at least US$10 million each year to cover the team’s international fixtures.
The lack of money and how it is spent has always been a contentious issue with the Pacific Island teams but since earlier last year Fiji received a lifeline through new sponsorships that would see them through at least the next few years.
Allegations of misuse of much-needed money during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand led to then captain Mahonri Schwalger writing a damning letter to Malielegaoi. The player’s criticisms were supported by some players but ultimately Schwalger paid the price for it by being dropped while Malielegaoi and the union moved on.
A similar issue surfaced just before the Test against England last November, with the players threatening to boycott the match.
Only a threat by the then International Rugby Board averted the strike, which could have placed in jeopardy the Test against the All Blacks amongst others.
The Pacific Island teams have also been critical of the fact that world rugby’s top teams hardly bothered to even think of playing a Test there, with the suspicion that it’s all down to dollars and cents.
Unfortunately that’s the reality of professional sports.
Why do Fijians, Samoans and Tongans relocate to New Zealand and Australia? For better economic opportunities, that’s why.
And why do players from these countries play in the same two countries and since recent years, also in Japan, the United Kingdom and France? For the money.
Just like New Zealand, the three island states do not have the population to help bring in more money.
The main stadiums in the three countries hold only between 12,000 and 18,000 people.
Big teams get hyped up when playing in front of big crowds. The television networks also want to have big crowds and big venues.
Controversial former Samoa centre Eliota Sapolu didn’t mince his words when he took aim at the All Blacks for ignoring the Pacific Islands as a venue for their Tests, pointing out to money as the reason for this.
But isn’t the chase for money also the root cause of the problems the Samoan players have with their union and officials?