Ray Niuia hat-trick sparks comeback victory for Samoa over Tonga
Despite a strong first half showing by the ‘Ikale Tahi at Churchill Park in Lautoka, it was Samoa who ran away with the result as the impact of their bench – and a hat-trick to hooker Ray Niuia – handed them a 34-18 victory.
Without headline trio Israel Folau, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau, it was Tonga who took the early lead when first-five James Faiva landed two penalties on the back of his forward pack’s vastly-improved showing from last week’s 36-0 loss to Fiji.
Samoa first-five AJ Alatimu pegged one back for the opposition, but Tonga’s dominance up front reigned supreme throughout the remainder of the first half.
Samoa cut into Tonga’s advantage when hooker Ray Niuia crashed over from a rolling maul near the end of the first half, but the ‘Ikale Tahi still carried a comfortable 18-10 half-time lead.
It was a richly-deserved lead as Tonga outsmarted and outmuscled their Samoan counterparts, and much of that can be attributed to the induction of star prop Ben Tameifuna into the match day squad after he missed the defeat to Fiji.
Using his enormous frame to full effect, Tameifuna was a handful at the set piece but also showed his class as a ball-playing and ball-carrying threat.
It was a surprise, then, to see the 148kg behemoth taken from the field just three minutes into the second half.
Bereft of his multi-faceted talents, Tonga began to fall short in the face of Samoa’s forward pack, which gained a numerical advantage when Poloniati was sent to the sin bin following an array of penalties conceded by his team.
Niuia didn’t need a second invitation to double his try-scoring tally from the ensuing rolling maul as Samoa continued to close the gap on the scoreboard.
Poloniati’s absence – and that of Tameifuna – continued to plague Tonga when Niuia crossed for a hat-trick of rolling maul tries just minutes later.
With that, Tonga’s healthy lead had turned into a two-point deficit, and the ‘Ikale Tahi’s downfall only accentuated when debutant midfielder Tumua Manu scooped up an intercept and strolled in under the posts just after after the hour mark.
Samoa’s momentum proved insurmountable for Tonga, whose desperation to give themselves a fighting chance of victory came back to haunt them when Theo McFarland scored after Samoa pinched the ball deep inside enemy territory from a counter-ruck.
Seilala Mapusua’s side now sit atop of the Pacific Nations Cup standings, which sets up a mouth-watering, winner-takes-all contest against Fiji – should they beat Australia A – in Lautoka next weekend.
Tonga, meanwhile, will target a consolation victory over Australia A at Churchill Park in a week’s time.
Samoa 34 (Tries to Ray Niuia (3), Tumua Manu and Theo McFarland; 2 conversions and penalty to AJ Alatimu, conversion to D’Angelo Leuila)
Tonga 18 (Tries to Fetuli Paea and Veikoso Poloniati; conversion and 2 penalties to James Faiva)
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