Fullback James Pritchard scored a try and added another 18 points with his boot as Canada took advantage of Tonga’s lack of discipline, hanging on to defeat the Pacific Islanders 36-27 in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup rugby tournament on Saturday.
Tonga made the score close with three late tries, taking 17 points off what had been a 33-10 lead. A late Pritchard penalty eased Canadian nerves after a high-scoring second half.
The 11th-ranked Tongans had one man red-carded in the first half and two more sent to the sin-bin in the second half in a physical game that took its toll. Tevita Halaifonua was yellow-carded for a hit that resulted in Canadian winger Matt Evans being stretchered off and Tonga playing temporarily with 12 men.
Evans later returned to the bench and seemed OK. But replacement Liam Underwood was felled as the clock wound down.
The win improved No. 14 Canada’s tournament record to 3-0-0 following wins of 20-18 over Fiji and 16-9 over the U.S. Tonga, which defeated Japan 27-17 in its only other game, fell to 1-1-0.
Tonga, which trailed 9-7 at the half, does earn a bonus point for scoring four tries.
The Pacific Nations Cup tournament was expanded this year to incorporate Canada and the United States as a way of boosting competition for the so-called Tier 2 rugby nations. Defending champion Samoa, currently ranked seventh in the world, bowed out to take part in a competition this month in South Africa in June against the Springboks, Scotland and Italy.
Pritchard, returning from an arm injury, was good on all seven of his kicks. He also contributed to the offence, taking some abuse from the hard-hitting Tongans in the process.
Evans and Sean Duke scored tries for Canada while Pritchard contributed a try, four penalties and three conversions. He also crafted a first-half try for John Moonlight with a deft kick but the flanker was ruled in front of the kicker and the score was nullified.
Ciaran Hearn added a penalty for Canada, which had Tyler Ardron sin-binned in the final minutes.
Tonga got tries from Lua Lokotui, Viliame Iongi, Will Helu and Vainikolo. Kurt Morath, pulling the Tongan strings from fly half until he was hurt, kicked a conversion and a penalty while Viliami Hakalo added a conversion.
Iongi’s try came late in the game on a breakaway run, followed by scores by Vainikolo and Helu.
Canada stretched its lead early in the second half after a turning over the attacking Tongans in its own territory. Fly half Nathan Hirayama made a nice move to beat a Tongan and then passed to Evans, who rocketed down the sideline to score in the 44th minute.
Minutes later, captain Aaron Carpenter — celebrating his 50th cap — intercepted the ball and steamed towards the Tongan end. He fed Hirayama who passed to Duke for the score.
Pritchard’s conversion made it 23-7. A Morath penalty trimmed the lead to 23-10 with 30 minutes remaining.
Tongan was reduced to 10 men in the 52nd minute when Sione Piukala was yellow-carded for a shoulder change on Pritchard. A long-range Hearn penalty increased the Canadian lead to 26-10.
There was more pain for Tonga when Morath was carried off with a leg injury. Another Canadian attack was finished off by Pritchard, who touched down in the 58th minute.
It was his 14th try for Canada, moving him into sole possession of second place on Canada’s all-time list behind Winston Stanley (24).
There was ill-temper shown at several occasions in the first half and Tongan prop Eddie Aholelei was sent off in the 34th minute after a melee that saw Canadian flanker Jebb Sinclair decked with a punch. Hirayama and Tongan winger Fetu’u Vainikolo were lucky to stay on the pitch after trading blows early on in the incident.
Tonga sacrificed No. 8 Viliami Fihaki after the red card to get another prop on.
There was good and bad on display from Canada early on. They pushed the pace but made mistakes off kickoffs — one of which led to an early scrum that set up the Lokotui try — and were hurt by handling errors. Good field position was also nullified by penalties.
But Moonlight caused several turnovers, prop Jason Marshall had a rampaging run and the Canadian backs, showing their sevens skills, were fluid.
The opportunistic Canadians pressured the Pacific Islanders but lacked a clinical finish. Instead they had to rely on three Pritchard penalties for a 9-7 lead going into the half.
Canadians fielded a more experienced squad Saturday with their starting lineup totalling 293 caps, compared to 149 for Tonga. Fifty of those caps came from Canadian captain Aaron Carpenter, who joins 13 others in the Canadian half-century club.
Carpenter earned a lecture from referee J.P. Doyle early in the second half for too much talk.
The grey day was brightened up by a handful of cheerful, colourful Tongan fans. The Canadian team did its bit to brighten up the antiquated venue by plastering the Maple Leaf outside their dressing room. And in a show of solidarity, they walked off the field after the warmup in a phalanx with hands on each other’s shoulder. The Tongans did the same.
Coach Kieran Crowley, whose record at the Canadian helm was 18-13-1 going into the match, and his staff will now review the players’ performances before selecting their roster to face Ireland next Saturday at Toronto’s BMO Field.
Ireland is currently ranked ninth in the world, although many of its top players are currently touring Australia with the British and Irish Lions.
Four days after the Irish match, Canada closes out tournament play against Japan in Nagoya.
All the games are leading up to a World Cup qualifying home-and-away series with the 16th-ranked U.S. in August.
Billed by Queen’s University as Canada’s third-largest natural grass stadium, the 42-year-old Richardson Stadium has seen better days. There are bleachers on either side of the field but both top tiers, in need of repairs, are closed off.
The stadium is named after George Taylor Richardson, a Queen’s graduate renowned for his athleticism and sportsmanship who died in the First World War.
Notes: Canada came into the game holding a 4-2 career edge over the Tongans. The Canadians had not lost to the Pacific Islanders since 1999 when they were beaten 18-10 in Nuku A’lofa. ... Tonga came into the game with a hot hand, having defeated the U.S., Scotland and Japan in successive games on the road.