SPORTS

Flying Fijians Rugby World Cup Campaign Takes Off

Fiji 27 (Waisea Nayacalevu 2, Alivereti Veitokani, Viliame Mata tries; Ben Volavola 2 con, pen) NZ Maori 10 (Sean Wainui 2 tries) HT: 12-0.
14 Jul 2019 13:46
Flying Fijians Rugby World Cup Campaign Takes Off
Fiji Airways Flying Fijians players mob centre Waisea Nayacalevu’s (13) after he scored his second try against the Maori All Blacks at the ANZ Stadium in Suva on July 13, 2019. Photo: Ronald Kumar

A Fiji Airways Flying Fijians team full of desire and self-belief outclassed the Maori All Blacks 27-10 yesterday to achieve something they hadn’t  done in 62 years.

Captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu and head coach John McKee chose to retain some measure at the post-match press conference and focus on the next game.

With five more Tests to come until the first Rugby World Cup match against Australia on September 21, they were probably right to do so; success at the World Cup is this team’s ultimate goal.

But what a huge way to start Fiji’s RWC build-up in front of a raucous partisan crowd that turned the atmosphere in the stadium festive by fulltime.

Every big hit and turnover garnered cheers, while every unfavourable refereeing decision was collectively booed- which combined to make ANZ Stadium a genuinely intimidating place for a visiting team.

“We know that we’ve got a long way between now and our first game against Australia,” McKee said.

“But we always want to be able to start our campaign on a high note and against a great opposition like the Maori All Blacks.”

The performance captured a great deal about this team: its qualities in attack and defence; McKee’s meticulous work on the scrums; and the side’s crucial depth.

Much of Fiji’s fluid attacking display was enabled by the new midfield pairing of Levani Botia and Waisea Nayacalevu, who lasted the full 80 minutes.

NEW PARTNERSHIP

Botia was particularly potent, his powerful running, work ethic and effective ball retention skills creating space for his quicker teammates to exploit.

Nayacalevu ended the match with two tries to his name, including Fiji’s last in the second half which came as the visitors were mounting a comeback having scored twice on the trot.

The forward pack also stood out.

Loose forwards Waqaniburotu, Semi Kunatani and Viliame Mata played interchangeably, giving the latter two freedom to join attacks with some regularity.

The strategy paid dividends in the 32nd minute when Mata, who limped off in the second-half, beat Akira Ioane to score brilliantly after combining with Leone Nakarawa.

COMBINATIONS CLICKING

Seeing Kunatani, Mata, Nakarawa and winger Josua Tuisova combine so well brought back memories of their days in the national 7s team, which they helped win the Olympic gold medal in 2016.

London Irish Exiles duo Albert Tuisue and Alivereti Veitokani, who scored Fiji’s first try, also deserve a mention.

Tuisue was quietly efficient, especially at scrum time and around the breakdowns; while Veitokani was an ever-present threat, also making a decent contribution in defence.

All in all, it was a superb– but not perfect, as McKee later pointed out – day at the office for Fiji.

The coach highlighted some turnovers in the first-half which he felt were conceded too easily after the ball-carrier was left isolated – among other things he wants to work on this week.

AREAS TO IMPROVE

“We also need to get quicker ball to create scoring opportunities for ourselves,” he said.

“I think some of our kicking game was probably not as good too. I felt sometimes we kicked at the wrong time especially in tricky windy conditions.”

The issues were seen as normal for a team that has played together for the first time since November last year.

And this was also by no means a team at full-strength.

Wingers Eroni Sau and Patrick Osborne were ruled out in the 11th hour after a fierce clash of heads in training on Thursday.

Also missing were Josh Matavesi, Jale Vatubua, Nikola Matawalu, Peceli Yato, Semi Radraradra and Vereniki Goneva.

COMPETITION FOR PLACES

But given how the today’s team played, those players face a genuine fight to make it back into the starting XV.

Despite the absentees, Fiji dominated every facet of play against the visitors who at times looked desperate and in need of new ideas.

However, as captain Waqaniburotu pointed out, nobody wants to get carried away with the result.

“The boys are happy and they’re celebrating. I think they deserve to celebrate but this is just our first of six games to come before the World Cup and the boys know that,” he said.

The result also seemed to have shocked the New Zealand media.

One report from Stuff NZ said: “Billed as a chance for some of those overlooked for the All Blacks squad to prove something of a point, it instead turned into a fixture to forget for the visitors, as an energised and spirited home side put them away 27-10 at ANZ Stadium, for their first win over them in 62 years.”

CHANGES EXPECTED

Looking ahead to next week’s return match in Rotorua, New Zealand, McKee will likely make several changes to his match 23.

“Next week some of the players that didn’t play today will get an opportunity. My intention is to use these first few games to give everyone that is fit for selection some game time,” he said.

“The new players coming into the side will give us some freshness but it is also an opportunity to show us what they can do.”

WHAT HAPPENED

Fullback Veitokani opened proceedings in the 22nd minute, scoring from a neat move he started, with first five-eighth Ben Volavola converting to make it 7-0.

Mata extended Fiji’s lead in the 32nd as the half ended with Fiji in a 12-0 lead.

The hosts began the second-half as they closed the first, as Nayacalevu completed a sublime move that started from Fiji’s 22-metre line.

Volavola converted and his earlier penalty meant Fiji led 22-0.

The Maori hit back with two unanswered tries to winger Sean Wainiu before Nayacalevu crossed over once again to help Fiji see out a 27-10 win.

Edited by Osea Bola

Feedbacksheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj

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