All in all, Saturday’s game between Fiji and the United States in Townsville was probably the most unevenly matched contest of the first week of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, with the United States fielding a team that would have struggled to hold their own against the Knights, Wests Tigers, Titans or any other team at the bottom of the 2017 NRL ladder, let alone a team that included Jarryd Hayne, Kevin Naiqama and Apisai Koroisai amongst its spine and Suliasi Vunivalu and Akuila Uate out on the wings.
The effect was a bit like watching an NBL team take on an all-stars NBA team, or a game between NRL players and NSW Cup players, with most of the American representatives actually hailing from the next several rungs of local rugby league below the NRL. The first five tries from the Fijians were especially dominant, with Hayne seeming to realise that all he really needed to do in the halves was to get the Steeden across to anyone with half a chance of breaking through the line, so disorganised was the American defence.
While that may have taken any real suspense or even excitement out of the game, it did offer the fascinating spectacle of how Hayne might look as a star five-eighth, with the soon-to-be ex-Titan exorcising some of his NFL demons by playing around with all the ways he could set up his team mates to crash over, making for a string of Fijian four-pointers that initially felt as if it must cascade the Bati into triple figures.
Taane Milne put down the first Fijian points, thanks to a deft pair of passes from Hayne and Naiqama, followed by an impressive dash at the left corner by Vunivalu, who offloaded on the ground to Milne while Kristian Freed tried in vain to pin him down. Four minutes later, Milne turned from tryscorer to try assister, thanks to a cut-out pass from Hayne, grubbering the Steeden forward as Junior Vaivai tried to bring him to earth, and setting up Naiqama to dash forward and scoop up the Steeden, before grounding it as effortlessly as Milne had moments before.
Not content to remain a try assister, however, Milne put down the fourth try shortly after, making it twelve points for the Bati in eleven minutes. This time, it came off the back of a short ball from Brayden Wiliame, putting Milne in place to charge at the line, confident of being able to ran through the American defence, as he disposed of Freed with a quick fend and slammed past Corey Makelin as if the Wentworthville Magpies fullback wasn’t even there.
Four minutes later, Uate crossed over, thanks to more quick thinking from Hayne, who scooped up the ball after a big hit on Ashton Sims bounced it backwards, and then sent it across to Uate, confident that the big winger would easily be able to stroll through three or four layers of American defence to plant the Steeden in the left corner. It was a bit surreal to see Hayne register how little he had to do to set up this try, and almost looked as if he had sent the ball over to the Manly winger simply to make sure everyone got a go.
Only three more minutes passed before Kane Evans put down the fifth Fijian try, marking the end of a stunning sequence of points, all of which were enabled by Hayne in the halves. This time, all it took was a short inside pass for the Roosters prop to burst through the American defence, in what initially looked set to be one of the most drastic landslide victories in any recent rugby league world cup.
The Americans must have breathed a sigh of relief then, when second-rower Matt Shipway put down the first try for the visitors, off the back of a neat pass from Freed, who managed to make up for his inability to defence Milne’s two tries by channeling some of Hayne’s ingenuity in the no. 6 jersey, shifting across the Fijian defence to set up the former South Newcastle forward to cross over for the first American points of the night.
After such a dominant display from the Bati, this was a genuine turning-point, especially as it was the first time in the game that United States had been down Fiji’s end, and the first time that the hosts had really had to defend their goal line. Not only did the talent differential make this feel every bit as momentous as Fiji’s first five tries, but it was also probably what prevented the Bati from continuing to cascade points into the single highest score of the world cup so far, with the team now forced to face their longest period of the game without points so far – a twelve minute stretch that felt endless given that they’d managed to put down three tries in the opening eleven minutes.
To be fair, Marcelo Montoya appeared to have crashed over at the twenty-third minute, only for the replay to show that he’d grounded the Steeden at the exact same moment that Jonathon Taylor Alley had dragged him into touch, while Ben Nakubuwai almost crashed over shortly after only to cough up the ball at the final second. Even during this dry period, then, the Bati never quite lost the momentum of the opening minutes, and yet there was still a definite hiatus following Shipway’s efforts, and a sense that Fiji had to work just that little bit harder to put down their next points.
It was appropriate, then, that it was the Bati captain who put down the next try, and regained some momentum for the Fijian side leading into half time. It didn’t hurt, either, that Naiqama did so with all the simplicity and elegance of the opening five tries – – the kind of simplicity and elegance that occurs when a team doesn’t even have to try that hard to score points. This time, it was simply a matter of Naiqama scooping up the ball out of dummy half, dummying to the left and then scooting through the American defence, as if determined to prove that it was just as easy to run between the United States players as it was to run through them.
Even by itself this would have been a stunning rejoinder before half time, but Fiji weren’t done with the first stanza yet. Thirty-two minutes in, an error from Viliame Kikau gifted the United States a scrum feed, and their first real field position since their first try, only for Tui Samoa to knock the ball on moments after coming onto the field, and just as the team were starting to put some pressure on the hosts – an uncharacteristic move for a player who has been so impressive for both the Dolphins and Falcons in the Intrust Super Cup.
The Bati made the most of the error, getting the ball back down their end as quickly as possible before Vunivalu broke through the American line, slipped out of a tackle from Makelim, dummied to the right in a tribute to Naiqama’s previous setup as much as out of any real necessity, and finally slammed down the ball as comfortably as he ever has. By comparison to the American side, it looked like a hard run, but the Storm winger barely broke a sweat, and was virtually strolling compared to some of the mad dashes he put in during Melbourne’s 2017 run to the finals.
Indeed, as half time approached, the Bati seemed to become more serene and United States seemed to become more tired – a visual and visceral reminder of how exhausting rugby league is as a contact sport; something we tend to forget in the NRL where the standard is so high and the teams are so evenly matched. If anything, it was after the half-time break that the Bati started to show some sign of strain, with the hosts knocking a high ball into touch to grant United States the scrum, who then got a penalty to boot.
That only made Fiji feel all the more dominant, however, when, they scored a couple of minutes later, once Vunivalu had cleaned up the American fifth tackle option and refused to allow them to drag him into touch. From there, Uate slammed through the American second row, twisting, spinning and then breaking through a tackle before speeding forward to effect a line break. Continuing his terrific form of the first half, Hayne got himself in position to break into open space, and as soon as his winger sent the Steeden across to him he sped forward and showcased some nifty footwork just for the hell of it before grounding the ball right beneath the posts and gifting Koroisau his easiest conversion of the evening.
Not surprisingly, this led to another cascade of Bati tries, in a condensed version of the opening twenty minutes of the game. A mere minute later, Naiqama almost crossed over, only to fumble the ball in a rare handling error, but the Bati quickly made up on the following set, when a sudden intercept from Milne on a pass from Bureta Faraimo to Vaivai saw him pop the ball backwards for Vunivalu to cross over once again, slamming through Makelin and Danny Howard to put down his second try of the evening.
About fifty-three minutes in, the process repeated itself, with the United States getting some field position on the back of an error from Kikau, and then another penalty right on their line, looking closer to crashing over than at any point this stanza. Towards the end of the tackle count they received a second penalty for some Fijian interference in the play-the-ball, making this the single most sustained period of pressure that the United States had been able to muster so far, only for David Marando to knock-on on the very first tackle, abruptly turning this into the single most frustrating moment of the game for the United States so far.
From there, the Bati quickly rebuilt momentum, with the American frustration coalescing into a dangerous tackle from Joe Eichner, and Fiji actually unable to find touch for the subsequent penalty, but Faraimano equally unable to clean up the ball either, thanks to a challenging bounce, returning the scrum feed to the Bati and gifting them a bit of resting space that they wouldn’t have received off the penalty alone.
So drastically had the brief glimpse of American potential been shut down that it was almost inevitable that Fiji would score – and so they did, with the Bati effecting an old-fashioned wraparound play to put Kikau over the line. Given that the Penrith forward had been a bit of a weak link for the Bati over the course of the evening, especially with handling errors, and that his mistake had started the recent American surge, that was a sense of finality to this particular Fijian try, especially since the shift from Koroisau to Milne at goalkicker paid dividends as rapidly the shift from Boas to Martin for Papua New Guinea the day before.
After a relatively quiet night in the halves – at least compared to Hayne – Raiwalui made a burst at the line two minutes later, sending the ball across to Kikau to plunge through and then running a hard line to regather it a couple of seconds later, with Milne managing to add the extras a couple of minutes later as well. It was a good way for the Fijians to end, since, if there had been any weak spot for the Bati over the course of the evening, it had been their kicking game, with Koroisau and Milne collectively only managing to convert about sixty percent of their tries – not such a big deal, to be sure, against the United States, but a potential issue when they’re called to take on more equally placed teams.
Still, the United States had the final word, with Vaivai putting down the final four-pointer off the back of a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes from Vunivalu. It was just the kind of momentary display of vulnerability that United States needed to put down another try, and they took full advantage of the momentary disorientation that ensued from seeing the Melbourne winger fail to deliver the goods, putting in one of their best sets of the night to send Vaivai over, thanks to a deft cut-out pass right on the line from Makelin
It was a nice moment for the Americans, not least because Vaivai appeared to have put down points on the half-time siren, only for the replay to demonstrate that he had recovered the ball on the verge of returning to the field of play a minute before. In their own way, the United States team put in one of the most heroic performances of the world cup so far – the heroism of a team playing completely out of their league – and few viewers could have begrudged them the last word as they prepare to take on Italy in Townsville next weekend.