The first day of the Sol2023 Pacific Games Rugby League 9s competition on Monday saw shock defeats of both the women’s and men’s reigning champions in an action-packed afternoon at Honiara’s National Stadium.
Fiji, who claimed gold in both events last time out at Samoa 2019, suffered surprise losses – Fiji women to debutants Tonga and Fiji men to Samoa.
In a rollercoaster women’s clash, Tonga surprised everyone by leading 10-4 at half-time. In the second half Fiji came back strong, but the backline of Tonga made a formidable fortress that Fiji could not penetrate, and Tonga held on to win 14-8.
Vanuatu were the other headline of the women’s competition, making their international rugby league debut and the first appearance by a Vanuatu rugby league team at a Pacific Games.
Although they lost to Tonga 16-0, Cook Islands 28-6 and Fiji 56-0, captain Jaimeen Kenni told the Pacific Games News Service they were delighted to have scored a try. “It’s the first one but it’s not the last one. There’ll be more to come, and I think it’s great to get a taste of that.”
She added: “I think rugby league is going forward in Vanuatu. I hope the little girls out there who are watching us know that they can also come out here and play against the Tongans, the Cook Islands and also feel like they can be part of it.
“Learning how fast rugby league 9s is, we’re going to go back and continue growing the sport but all in all, we had a pretty good run out there today and thank you to Solomon Islands so much for having us. It’s history for us too.”
In other notable women’s results, Samoa beat Solomon Islands 20-8.
In the men’s competition, Cook Islands played out a thrilling encounter against Solomon Islands, eventually prevailing 18-8. The hosts struck first in the second half, but Cook Islands responded with a well-executed play, courtesy of Malachi Morgan. In the final minutes, Daniel Toa was able to break through, with Ephraim Morgan securing the victory.
Cook Islands captain Adam Tangata said: “Rugby League 9s is a very fast game. Both teams play with a lot of passion and a lot of enthusiasm, and you can tell the crowd is getting behind it. You can see the big hits, the big runs and it’s good for the Pacific Games, a good spectacle.
“Fair play to the Solomon Islands boys, they play with a lot of pride at their home field. And they show their people that they are a force to be reckoned with.”
Fiji faced off against Tonga in a game that showed Fiji’s strength and dominance in the 9s code. From the kick-off to the final whistle Fiji dominated, including a spectacular try by Ratu Josua Rokonavutoro. Fiji’s relentless pressure and clinical abilities were evident throughout the second period, leading to two more tries. In the end, Fiji’s victory margin was a commanding 20-0, which underlined their seamless play.
Round 2 saw two more exciting men’s matches – Samoa beat reigning champions Fiji and Solomon Islands nearly defeated Tonga.
In an enthralling showdown between Fiji and Samoa, Fiji led 12-8 lead at halftime but the tide turned in the second half as Samoa came back with two more tries to secure one of the upsets of the tournament, winning 18-12.
Solomon Islands remained in their contest against Tonga until the dying seconds, thanks to a spirited second-half comeback, despite trailing 14-4 at the break. Two second-half tries saw the hosts narrow the margin to 14-12, but Tonga hung on.
The action resumes at 3pm on Tuesday at Honiara’s National Stadium for more pool matches, followed by semi-finals and medal contests on Wednesday.
By Peter Psalm and Donaldson Saepioh, Pacific Games News Service