Fiji round off series on high note
By Jeremy Duxbury
The FMF Flying Fijians ground out a 21-15 victory over a more experienced Manu Samoa side in the Suva rain on Saturday, putting in a gutsy performance packed with commitment through to the final whistle of this World Cup qualifier.
In a physical battle that had its fair share of scuffles and yellow cards, the Fiji defence stood tall and kept their try-line intact with all 15 of Samoa’s points coming from the boot of Leicester fly-half Roger Warren.
Fiji scored a try in each half to Seremaia Bai and debutant Maleli Kunavore, while Bai kicked 11 points. Nicky Little, sitting on 599 Test points, narrowly missed a conversion that would have seen his total move past 600.
Overall, Fiji looked the keener of the two sides, closing down the Samoan backline quickly and rushing them into careless mistakes. Fiji rarely showed their opponents the try-line and kept their cool in the closing stages when under pressure.
Particularly impressive was the way in which Wayne Pivac’s young choices stepped up to the mark. New caps Kunavore and wing Kameli Ratuvou acquitted themselves very well, while 19-year-old Jone Qovu and Naitasiri wing Mosese Luveitasau put in plenty of hard yards.
Samoa took an early lead when fullback Norman Ligairi failed to hold onto a high punt and Kunavore picked up the loose ball from an offside position. Warren punished the error with a penalty goal.
On 16 minutes, Sisa Koyamaibole caught Samoa skipper Semo Sititi with a high tackle, and Warren made it 6-0.
But it was the omnipresent Koyamaibole that made a typical barging foray into the Samoan 22 that set up Bai’s try. The Moala giant made 20 metres and took a handful of Samoans with him. From the ensuing ruck, Mosese Rauluni flicked it wide to Jack Prasad, who produced a delightful inside pass for Bai to score.
Fiji dominated the line-outs as Ifereimi Rawaqa showed his battling qualities to steal several balls against the throw. Rawaqa had been in hospital earlier in the week with a foot infection and had hardly trained with the team, but still threw himself about with his usual disregard to his own welfare.
Isoa Domolailai also proved a problem for the Samoans at the front of the line-out, and the Fiji pack held their own in the scrum. Indeed, late in the game, Fiji scrummed with seven against eight and still wheeled the Samoans around.
The two locks produced one beautiful line-out move when Rawaqa caught the ball long and passed back to Domolailai, who was still in the air at the front. This allowed Fiji to attack a weak point in the Samoa defence. The move very nearly resulted in a try but Kunavore lost control when tackled on the line.
Aca Ratuva has matured quickly in his first season in the Fiji team and is developing into a useful openside flanker that hunts down loose balls and shows good attacking skills too.
Fiji’s urgency showed when Ratuvou charged down a Warren kick, nearly setting up a try in the first half. And leading just 16-15 on the hour mark, Little charged down Warren again. Bai reacted quickly, scooped up the loose ball and set up Kunavore to make a big splash for his try.
The big Samoan backline rarely functioned efficiently as Gloucester inside centre Terry Fanolua seemed to struggle in the wet conditions. Lome Fa’atau on one wing hardly touched the ball, while massive Leicester wing Alesana Tuilagi only got one real run in the game.
Where the Samoans did do markedly better than last year was under the high balls. Tanner Vili at fullback looked very composed and made no mistakes; while replacement wing David Lemi handled well two difficult balls over his shoulder. Likewise, Fiji’s Ratuvou saved what could easily been a try when Warren opted to go for a quick tap penalty then chip into the corner. With Lemi coming in at speed, Ratuvou caught the ball one-handed and called the mark.
Despite the loss, Samoa win the Pacific Tri-Nations on points difference, and now go into Pool A at the 2007 Rugby World Cup with England and South Africa again. Fiji finish runners-up and progress to Pool B alongside Australia and Wales.
Tonga enter the repechage and should they be successful will also head into Pool A.