WORLD CUP FINALS: New Zealand v. Fiji (Wellington Regional Stadium, 18/11/17)

In a Rugby League World Cup year that has seen enormous point differentials, it was extraordinary to witness a game in which the total number of points scored equaled that of a a converted try, and in which neither team even managed to put down a try, resulting in a scoreline straight out of a football game, and a devastating loss for the Kiwis after their defeat by Tonga. To make things more incredible, the Bati were dominant from the very outset – much more dominant than the scoreline suggested – proving themselves to be the stronger team on the afternoon in almost every respect, while the prominence of high tryscorers on both sides – especially Jordan Rapana and Suliasi Vunivalu – just made the lack of tries all the more suffocating and suspenseful as Fiji held on to come away with a two point lead.

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Four minutes in, Brayden Wiliame almost managed a miracle try after Jarryd Hayne went wide and set him up to crash over, with only Roger Tuivasa-Sheck managing to prevent the four points by knocking the ball out of the Fijian second rower’s hand, in the middle of the tackle, just as he was about to get it to earth. At first, it seemed pretty obvious that Wiliame had lost it, but a call of try from the referee, combined with an ambiguous initial angle from the video referee, made it suddenly seem as if this might be one of the most momentous four-pointers of the World Cup so far.

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So brilliant had the momentum been preceding it, however, that the call of no try didn’t quash the Bati’s confidence; if anything, the realisation that the ball might have been put down seemed to spur them to an even greater effort over the coming sets, as they did everything to make up for not getting those four points the first time around. Seven minutes later, this resulted in a stunning sequence for Fiji, as two terrific offloads from Ashton Sims and Tui Kamikamica set up Hayne for a direct, deft kick that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak only just cleaned up on the goal line, before being brought to ground and forced to cough up the ball a couple of seconds later.

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From there, the Bati made a fresh assault on the Kiwi line, and the Kiwis dug in accordingly, with Shaun Johnson putting in a particularly strong tackle on Viliame Kikau only for the defenders to hang on too long for the next tackle, granting the Bati another penalty, at which point they took the decision to kick for goal, with Apisai Koroisau thankfully slotting it through the posts for the first of the two penalty goals that would grant the Bati the victory by the time the final siren sounded.

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If that weren’t enough, Koroisau also got the Bati their third successive penalty off the restart, after a quick dodge that caught Jared Waerea-Hargreaves offside, and with yet another penalty and restart right on the line it felt almost inevitable that Fiji would cross over, especially once they received another penalty two tackles into the following set. Given the way in which the game unfolded, it probably would have been best for them to take the two here, although then again, in such a defensively rigorous encounter, showing the Kiwis that they could take on their defensive line over and over again was probably part of what gave the Bati such a powerful competitive edge.

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As it was, a brilliant offload from Kikau, some quick thinking from Koroisau and a cut-out pass from Kevin Naiqama almost put Marcelo Montoya over the line, only for New Zealand to scramble with every bit of defence they had to try and achieve some headway in a game in which their fullback still hadn’t had a touch of the ball as the twenty minute mark loomed near. Unfortunately, his first touch came at the end of the following set, when a clutching fifth-tackle kick from Johnson ricocheted off the defence, initially appearing to grant New Zealand six again only for RTS to knock the Steeden on as he leapt forward to clean it up.

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Twenty-two minutes in, both teams got a bit of breathing space while Joseph Tapine had his knee strapped and examined, following on from an utterly damaging run from Akuila Uate in which the Manly winger slammed into Johnson, escaped from the tackle, and then simply ran over Tapine, in possibly the single most dominant display of Fijian power all night. The wait didn’t help New Zealand however, with Nelson Asofa-Solomona coughing up the ball after a punishing tackle from Hayne, Montoya and Henry Raiwalui. In a few short minutes, a Fijian centre had played more like a dexterous prop than New Zealand’s biggest prop, and if that wasn’t bad enough Uate effected a one-on-one strip on Brad Takairangi a couple of minutes later, only to knock the ball on before briefly regathering it, granting the hosts a little bit of breathing-space in the process.

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As the half time siren drew closer, New Zealand’s situation just seemed to become more and more desperate, with neither their spine nor their big men able to hold their own against the Bati. Johnson’s fifth-tackle option at the thirty-third minutes said it all: a spotty kick that landed about half a metre away from going into touch on the full. Even if Fiji didn’t manage to score on the following set, you could tell they were more buoyed up than the opposition, making more metres more tackle and always feeling closer to a line break or trymaking offload, culminating with Uate breaking free of a few Kiwi defenders and almost making it over the line, in a sequel to his terrific run up the side of the field a couple of sets before, only to cough up the Steeden at the eleventh hour.

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Sensing the siren coming, the Kiwis put in one of their best sets of the night with less than a minute to go. It included a skittering, dodging run in which RTS managed to make more metres with the ball than he had over the course of the game so far, and a terrific last tackle option with ten seconds to go that saw Rapana almost crash over, only to find the Bati defence too strong. Some quick thinking from the Canberra winger, however, saw him shift the ball back towards the middle of the field, where Te Maire Martin was poised to make a clutch fifth-tackle kick only for Vunivalu to storm in and bring him down before he had a chance to put boot to ball – a perfect image to summarise the clinical precision with which the Bati had managed to contain every attacking option that New Zealand had thrown their way.

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That said, New Zealand started the second half with more strength – comparatively speaking – as Johnson brought in a powerful fifth-tackle option at just the right moment: a towering bomb that disarmed the Fijian defence just enough for them to knock it forward and gain the Kiwis the first penalty of the second stanza. After such a dramatic succession of New Zealand errors in the first half, this was tantamount to a change in momentum (or a potential change in momentum), and yet while Johnson may have slotted the ball through fairly effortlessly the decision to take the two in the first place was itself a concession, an indication that the Kiwis weren’t confident risking things against the massive Fijian defence.

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The Bati showed them up on the next set, too, where a damaging run down the right side from Naiqama followed by a series of tackle busts from Vunivalu culminated with a sequence of play that saw Rapana sent off for a professional foul, leaving the Kiwis to defend a precarious 2-2 score with a twelve man team. The contrast to the previous New Zealand penalty couldn’t have been more dramatic, however, with the Bati immediately choosing to run the ball, instead of going goal for goal, in a powerful sequence of play that ended abruptly with an intercept from Johnson that must have been cathartic after he had been intercepted at such a critical moment against Tonga the week before.

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Still, Fiji got the ball back almost immediately, and commenced another extraordinary assault on the New Zealand line that saw Wiliame crash over for the second time of the night, off the back of a brilliant short ball from Hayne, only for a double movement to prevent him putting down points once again. As the hour mark loomed, the game reached its most dynamic period so far, as both sides strugged to put down the first try of the night, and to break the 2-2 deadlock that was becoming so suffocating.

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For my money, this was the most suspenseful sequence of the World Cup so far, as in the space of about five minutes the ball changed possession too many times to count, with both sides mistiming their second phase play and leaving themselves open to intercepts and cough-ups as the game got more manic and the crowd became more hysterical. By the time that Rapana returned to the field, Fiji hadn’t really capitalised on his absence, but New Zealand had struggled so much without him on the wing that it didn’t feel that much of a victory either, with RTS’ slip-up on the way to the tryline at the fifth-eighth minute summing up a Kiwi outfit that seemed almost stunned by the way the game had devolved around them, especially once RTS knocked on at the other end of the field on the back of a brilliant right-footed kick from Rawailui.

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From there, Fiji got the scrum, with Naiqama almost crashing over, Hayne cleaning up a long, looping pass, and Kikau slamming through a series of barely-formed tackles to almost score before coughing up the Steeden. At first, it seemed like a let-off for New Zealand, but in yet another twist – the twist that cost the Kiwis the game – the hosts were called offside, granting Fiji yet another penalty, while replay footage showed that Isaac Liu had stripped the ball in the tackle anyway. Sensing that things were reaching a clutch situation and that there might well be no further tryscoring opportunities, the Bati chose to take the two, and with Taane Milne kicking the ball through the posts the last points of the game had been scored, even if there were still a full eighteen minutes to go.

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Even if the Bati didn’t score again, however, they still continued to showcase their dominance. A particularly breathtaking sequence came with fifteen minutes to go, when a fairly underwhelming kick from Raiwailui turned into a veritable showcase for Hayne’s speed, handling and footwork, with the Titans fullback managing to get a hand to the ball twice and almost setting the Bati up for a try, or at least a repeat set, before DWZ cleaned it up at the tryline, although not without a mass of Fijian defenders almost bundling him into touch.

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With ten minutes to go, New Zealand glimpsed a little bit of hope, as Rapine effected the first line break of the night and probably the best run of the night for the Kiwis – a brutal, spectacular combination of speed and footwork that must have been cathartic for New Zealand fans after seeing him led off the field in the first half for what seemed to be his last appearance of the game. On the next tackle, Kodi Nikorima coughed up the ball following a one-on-one strip from Naiqama, only for the referee to award New Zealand the scrum on the back of an ostensible knock-on from Fiji.

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From there, New Zealand put in one of their most frantic and dynamic sets of the night so far, but instead of opting for a field goal Takairangi chose to kick on the fourth tackle, with Montoya catching the Steeden on the full and bringing all the Kiwi momentum to a halt, in an appropriate finale – or near finale – to one of the most impressive and uncompromising performances of his entire career, and a critical moment in his evolution as a player that must shape the way he is used and organised at the Bulldogs. Two minutes later, the Bati received the first goal line dropout of the night, as a high kick from Hayne trapped DWZ in the in goal area.

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Surprisingly, the Kiwis put in a fairly workmanlike set, with Naqiama cleaning up Johnson’s long kick effortlessly, but when the Bati captain coughed up the Steeden on the first tackle, it felt as if the Kiwis had to win – if not through a try, then at least through a penalty goal, especially with four whole minutes left on the clock. One minute later, and Johnson got the Kiwis their first goal line dropout of the night, setting them up with yet another chance – and from the body language of the Bati you could tell that they were almost certain that the Kiwis would manage to pull through.

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For a moment, it looked as if this was indeed what would happen, as the Kiwis accelerated over to the left side of the field, only for Rapana to culminate a fairly underwhelming night by finding himself with just a little less room to move than he needed, opting for a mistimed kick that eventually bounced into touch, forcing the Bati to display the most consummate self-control to prevent it leading to yet another goal line dropout before it skidded over the line. Given Rapana’s ability to excute miracles for the Raiders with no room to move, it was something of a minor miracle for Fiji to see him fall short here, and so the Bati regained confidence for the last minute of the game, storming down the field, only for New Zealand to receive possession earlier than expected, with a full thirty seconds to go.

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Any efforts by RTS to make metres was immediately quashed, however, as the entire defence hounded him, forcing him to retreat several metres backwards and indeed almost dragging him into touch. Two tackles later, Johnson opted for a Hail Mary kick that found Naiqama on the chest with five seconds to go, and as the final siren sounded the game ended in the most symbolic way possible – with Naiqama lying on the ground, hugging the Steeden to his chest, in a blur of incredulous rapture. As the Fijian bench ran on to join him on the field, the rest of the team broke down in tears, and the Bati celebrated the most historic event in the history of Fijian rugby league, along with only the second tryless game in Rugby League World Cup history.

About Billy Stevenson (102 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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