Fiji earn important win in Apia
By Vela Naucukidi
Pacific Rim champions Fiji earned a vital 17-16 victory over Manu Samoa at Apia Park on Saturday in their first qualifier for the 2003 World Cup after trailing 11-9 at half-time.
Young Nadi wing Tevita Latianara, who turned 22 last month, scored the vital try in the 56th minute after Alfred Uluinayau had made an intercept with Samoa going forward.
Uluinayau shot off, flicked the ball wide to Seru Rabeni in support who passed it wide for Latianara to score in the corner.
Though Samoa came back with a pushover try to replacement hooker Jonathan Meredith, Fiji held their nerve and chalked up an important win as they seek to top the Pacific Tri-Nations pool and get a more favourable draw in next year’s World Cup.
And remembering the words of Samoa Rugby Union deputy CEO Saipele Esera: "Doing well in your away games is the key to winning the pool," Fiji travel to Nuku’alofa for next Friday’s clash with Tonga in good form.
At Apia Park, Earl Va’a, who had made Fiji’s back three scramble all afternoon with some pinpoint tactical kicking, had the chance to snatch the match for the hosts with a penalty goal attempt deep into injury time. But the ball sailed wide and referee Steve Walsh blew the final whistle.
Samoa had started the game strongly, with Leicester Tigers’ Fred Tuilagi touching down for a try after just three minutes of play.
Fiji turned over possession in a scrum, and Samoa quickly span the ball wide for Tuilagi to score on the overlap.
Two minutes later, Nicky Little closed the gap with a successful penalty goal, one of four he converted in the match.
Samoa extended their lead in the 25th minute with fullback Silao Leaega’s first successful kick between the sticks. Little narrowed the scores again but an offside by Fiji in the 40th minute saw Leaega give Samoa a 11-9 half-time lead.
Samoan forwards were fast on breakdown and dominated the line-outs – an area where Fiji will need to improve.
In the backs, Rabeni, making his return to Test football after a two-year vacation, made numerous breaks at centre and put in some gruelling tackles.
But Fiji lacked a first-half finisher and lost the ball near the try line on a couple of occasions.
They regrouped in the second half and changed the style of their game to camp in the Samoan half for more than 20 minutes.
Fiji tightened up defence and worked their way back into the game, kicking the ball deep into the Samoa’s half and using their fast backs to follow up.
Little missed two penalties but managed to convert one in the 51st minute to put Fiji ahead for the first time.
Five minutes later, Latianara’s try furthered Fiji’s lead to 17-11.
Dan Baleinadogo came in for Uluinayau and injected more strength in the backline. Ligairi moved to the wing to replace Latianara, and Joseph Narruhn moved to fullback.
In the 68th minute, Samoa scored their second try when Fiji had only 14 men on the field – Rabeni had been yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle.
Using their stronger forwards, Samoa drove Fiji back for Meredith to touch down. But the conversion was missed, leaving the Manu one point adrift.
Leaega missed three out of five straight-forward penalties that would have made a difference to the outcome.
In the final 10 minutes, Samoa threw everything they had into attack. But Fiji didn’t flinch.
An infringement in the scrum gave Va’a one last chance but he was unable to keep it straight.