Samoans sink Fiji in battle of pacific.
WESTERN Samoa, for so long the nearly men at Hongkong, became the new kings of sevens rugby by ending Fiji's three year reign in the final at So Kon Po last night.
After years playing in the shadow of their fellow Pacific Islanders, the Samoans finally gained the recognition they always felt they deserved, beating defending champions Fiji 14-12 in a tense and uncompromising final - a grand climax to two days of hardrugby which took its toll of casualties on both sides.
After destroying New Zealand's hopes in the semi-finals, avenging their quarter-final defeat last year, the Samoans engaged Fiji in an eye-ball to eye-ball pre-final war-dance.
Around 33,000 fans at the partially-built Hongkong Stadium got their first taste of Samoa's intimidating Manu, as the Fijians watched impassively only feet away, having completed their own Cibi.
For captain Danny Kaleopa, who was unable to play in the final because of an injury sustained during the 24-14 victory over New Zealand, victory was the result of intense physical and mental preparations.
''This is what we have been waiting for for a long time. It's only a pity I couldn't be running on the field with the guys,'' said Kaleopa.
''We came here with a mission - to reach the Cup competition and pay back New Zealand. And after beating New Zealand the confidence was there to win the tournament.'' It was the first time Western Samoa had reached the final since 1979, when they were thrashed 39-3 by Australia at the old Hongkong Football Club grounds.
Fourteen years on, at the Sevens' newest home, they duly joined an exclusive group of champions.
They became only the sixth winners in the Sevens' 18-year history.
''I have always said that we are tired of losing in the quarter-finals. Now we're looking forward to the World Cup,'' added Kaleopa.
Samoa surprised the crowd by including Junior Paramore as a replacement in their squad for the final after injuries had severely depleted their squad.
A native Samoan, Paramore had opted to play for the Kiwis and represented them in Hongkong after being picked for Samoa.
He subsequently came on in the final to replace winning try-scorer Alefaio Vaisuai, who was later taken off on a stretcher after being hit by Sakeasi Vonolagi.
''Junior is always a Samoan at heart. And he was originally picked for the squad. We did have a lot of injuries and did not field anyone else but Samoans.'' Fiji also entered the final with severe injury problems and had Australian Jason Little on stand-by on the replacements' bench.
Mesake Rasari, last year's Player of the Tournament, appeared to struggle with his heavily bandaged knee, although he managed a try in the final, and captain Vesi Rauluni missed the final because of a recurring shoulder injury.
Not even the inspirational Waisale Severi, who had virtually single-handedly seen off a powerful challenge by Australia in a nail-biting semi-final, could lift them.
Serevi, who top-scored in the tournament with 86 points, brilliantly carried his side from 5-14 deficit to a 17-14 victory over the Aussies with three superb tries.
That game saw Australia's David Campese pay a sad farewell to his last Sevens, forced off in the first half with an ankle injury.
Serevi, who carried the hopes of a nation for whom sevens rugby is akin to religion, said they were not finished, despite some of the players who have played so well in the last three years looking well past their best.
''It's not the end of an era. We will be back next year having forgotten what happened here and look to win,'' said Serevi.
''At the scrum and line-outs we did not get any clean ball and the backs did not function against the Samoans. We were just unlucky and have no complaints.
''We are still hopeful of winning the World Cup but it is better to lose now as it will give the boys a chance to pull their socks up.'' Their coach Ratu Kitone Vesikula herded his players out of the stadium immediately after the prize-giving ceremony, but said that they will concentrate on winning the World Cup Sevens, next month in Scotland.
''Maybe it is a blessing in disguise that we lost,'' he said. ''It will make us play better in the World Cup.'' Vonolagi, who, like a few of his teammates showed uncharacteristic flashes of anger against the Samoans, opened the scoring for Fiji 49 seconds into the final with an unopposed run down the right flank.
Serevi missed the conversion and three minutes later Alama Ieremia gave Samoa the lead when he broke through the middle and touched down between the posts to give Anatelea Aiolupo an easy conversion for a 7-5 lead.
Rasari then showed a flash of his old brilliance to score his second try of the tournament. Serevi converted to give Fiji a 12-7 lead.
Vaisuai's try restored the lead for Western Samoa, who took the advantage into the second half.
The Samoans then spent the remaining 10 minutes defending with passion and stunning physical force from big centre Lolani Koko, who was originally picked for New Zealand, Paramore, and Junior Tonu'u.
With three minutes to go they were awarded a penalty, which Aiolupo kicked wide.
More reports and pictures Pages 32 & 33