Pacific rugby nations head home

11:58 am on 13 October 2015

The Rugby World Cup tournament has ended for all three Pacific Island nations, with pre-tournament hopes of a playoffs run fading into familiar frustrations of fighting against the odds.

Fiji, Samoa and Tonga not only missed out on the quarter-finals but failed to qualify automatically for the next World Cup after finishing fourth in their respective groups, putting their participation in the 2019 World Cup in Japan in doubt.

Fiji arguably performed the best of all three but John McKee's team were unable to topple England, Australia or Wales in the so-called Pool of Death.

"There's been a lot of talk about the draw but we can control a lot of things, and we work hard in a lot of areas, but we can't control the draw," McKee said.

"Partly it seems to be because the rankings were done a long way out from the World Cup and partly it was the luck of the draw that someone else got drawn in that group, which put those big three teams together with us. Hopefully the draw's a bit kinder to us next time."

Fiji's head coach John McKee attends a press conference in Cardiff.

Fiji's head coach John McKee attends a press conference in Cardiff, south Wales, on September 30, 2015, during the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP

Samoa saved their best performance of the tournament until last, a 36-33 defeat to Scotland, but by then it largely didn't matter.

The Manu outscored the Scots four tries to three but the boot of Greg Laidlaw proved the difference in Newcastle.

Coach Stephen Betham said a lack of discipline proved costly.

"We played our finest game but we still fell short," Betham said. "There was time just before half-time and just after half-time (where) we didn't take our chances but the game would have swung the other way. Towards the end we gave away too many penalties. I think the count ended up 13, we gave away 13 penalties, and when you give away that many penalties on discipline... you can't win Test matches when you give away that many penalties."

It was actually 20 penalties Samoa conceded at St James' Park, a week after three of their players were sin-binned against Japan.

Manu Samoa coach Stephen Betham.

Manu Samoa coach Stephen Betham. Photo: AFP

Betham said after that match his players had only themselves to blame and assistant coach Alama Ieremia confessed the team was "embarrassed" by the result.

Samoa also lost the services of vice-captain Alesana Tuilagi in the post-match fallout, with the veteran winger slapped with a dubious five-week ban for kneeing a player.

Manu Samoa vice-captain Alesana Tuilagi.

Manu Samoa vice-captain Alesana Tuilagi. Photo: AFP

That led to a public outcry and the hashtag #freealesana trending on social media.

The ban was reduced to two weeks on appeal but many fans and pundits were left wondering how a ball carrier running legitimately into a poorly executed tackle could warrant even a mention, yet alone a penalty (it received neither during the match) or suspension.

Betham said he said he was "shocked" by the initial ban but was also open about the fact his team only had themselves to blame for general ill discipline against Japan.

Samoa team-mates Faifili Levave and captain Ofisa Treviranus also made appearances at the judiciary for separate incidents following that match, but escaped sanctions.

The judiciary became a familiar haunt for Pacific players with Fiji's Dominiko Waqaniburotu, Nemani Nadolo and Manasa Saulo all banned for between one and 10 weeks for incidents not picked up by the referee on the day.

Nemani Nadolo

Nemani Nadolo Photo: AFP

Betham said before the tournament that the Island nations were targeted more by referees and in his final press conference reflected on suggestions that the Pacific Island teams are hard done by.

"We've got to go now and do our reviews and all the processes that go along with that, and find out where we went wrong along the way during the World Cup," Betham said.

"My own thoughts was it's always the case but if we keep using it as an excuse we're not going to gain (anything) so we've just got try our best at what we've got, use the best (and) whatever resources we have. We've just got make the best of it and try and foot it with the world".

Tonga were the only Pacific team that went into their final round robin match with a chance of reaching the knockout rounds.

That proved beyond them as the All Blacks prevailed 47-9 and Argentina thrashed Namibia to seal second spot in Group C.

All Blacks v Tonga

Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The 'Ikale Tahi had just four days rest between each of their final three pool games against Namibia, Argentina and New Zealand - hardly ideal preparation for playing tier one countries.

Fiji were no different - having to back up against Australia five days after their opening match against England, while Samoa's tightest turnaround was six days prior to facing South Africa.

Unlike the 2011 World Cup, tier one countries also had to negotiate short turnarounds in 2015 but unlike the tier two and three countries they never had to play or back up against tier one countries one after the other.

Tonga rugby coach Mana Otai.

Tonga rugby coach Mana Otai. Photo: AFP

Tonga coach Mana Otai said it was disappointing to have missed out on both the playoffs and automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup but insisted there was still plenty of positives to reflect on.

"We always look at silver linings behind every dark cloud," Otai said. "To requalify, that's where we are now - there was never a moment that we were thinking down that track. I thought that there has been a huge improvement from the way we played against Georgia [in the first game] to the way we played the last two tier one nations.

"We showed glimpses of how good we can be, it's just there's a few little bits in the middle there. Fitness is an area (we can improve on) and of course the pressure, it's a whole new level for these guys playing against these guys. I don't think we have gone downhill, I thought we have improved every game.

"Surely against Georgia we would have preferred a better start and that would have built confidence in us but we still managed to look at every game as though we were still in the running, so there was never a moment that we thought we were out of it until (the New Zealand game) really."

Tonga, along with Fiji and Samoa, now have to qualify for the 2019 World Cup via repecharge, with a strong possibility only two more qualifying spots will be available from the Oceania region.

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