The NSW Country Eagles and Fijian Drua have played out an enthralling match down in the Gong – so enthralling that they literally couldn’t be split.
The men from the bush came into this match sitting second on the ladder, having knocked aside Melbourne and Sydney in their first two games. The defending champions meanwhile, were sitting in sixth, following an nail-biting draw against Brisbane City followed by a disappointing loss at home to the Western Force, their first loss in Fiji since the final round of 2017.
The Eagles desperately needed to maintain their winning streak to line up for a tough second half of the season, whilst the Drua needed a first win of the season to kick-start their title defence. And so, these teams clashed in front of a reasonable crowd of around 1,200 at WIN Stadium.
While the match turned into a thrilling encounter, the first twenty minutes were pretty slow, as both teams sized each other up. The Drua worked their way into Country territory, and came away with points in the 8th minute after plenty of patient build-up phases from the big boppas. Finally, halfback
Country were quick to strike back however, upon their first entry into enemy territory in the 12th minute. Going to their main attacking weapon, the set piece, Tom Horton was the recipient of a brilliantly orchestrated rolling maul try, but James Kane pulled the conversion away and the Drua were still ahead, 5-7.
The Drua however hit right back in the 19th minute with a try to Epeli Radaniva, and the Drua were up 5-14. However, after this disjointed period of back and forth between the two sides, Country restarted and it was like a switch was flicked on, as the match kicked into a period of extremely fast running rugby. Both sides traded blows, with Country going to their forwards to dominate the set piece, and grabbing the game by the scruff on the neck. The Drua, however, were stubborn and aggressive in defence, repelling wave after wave of attack. In addition, whenever they got the ball, the Drua were asking plenty of questions of the NSW backline, as the flying Fijian flair began to show itself.
Country’s persistence however was finally rewarded in the 33rd minute with another rolling maul try, this time halfback Jake Gordon being the recipient. Kane, however, was having a tough afternoon with the boot, and missed again. 10-14 to the Drua.
The try however gave Country a clear direction on where to attack the Drua, and they took control for the remainder of the first half, with their forwards getting to work and out-muscling the Drua piggies in general play and at set piece. The Fijians were starting to concede penalties, so much so that the first half began to run into five minutes of overtime.
Finally, after another conceding yet another penalty on their own tryline, which saw the teams engage in some push and shove, referee James Quinn had had enough, and showed the Drua’s halfback Peni Matawalu the cheese for a professional foul. Country packed the scrum, and Mack Mason flung it wide to Mark Nawaqanitawase, who dived in the corner to reward Country for their consistent pressure. Kane converted, and the whistle was blown for halftime.
Halftime Score: NSW Country 17 – 14 Fijian Drua
Country picked up right where they left off right after halftime, going to their forward dominance to try and extend their slim lead. However, Kane dropped it cold and the Drua pounced, producing a ninety metre counter-attack that is destined to be the top five reel for try of the season. Aporosa Tabulawaki had his work cut out after recieving a soccer kick, but he put on some serious toe and out-ran the entire Country backline to give the Drua back the lead. Enele Malele converted yet again, in what was an outstanding performance by the fullback, and the Drua were up 17-21.
The match then turned into an arm-wrestle, but the Eagles were controlling the game through dominant set-piece. Wave after wave, they pounded the Drua lines, but the Fijian defence was stubborn and herculean, repelling everything that was thrown at them. Eventually, the Eagles would keep coughing up, and the Fijians would pounce again, working their way back up the field and relieving pressure. At the hour mark, it was clear the high-effort tempo the Eagles forwards were playing at was starting to tire them, and when they were held up over the goal line to give the Drua back the ball, it was clear a mental victory had been won by the visitors.
The Country reserves came on, but they struggled to compete with the Drua at set piece, and the visitors started to threaten again, showing many instances where they broke the defensive line. In the 68th minute, the Drua’s persistence in defence was justly rewarded with a penalty on halfway, but instead of going to their attacking trademark of running rugby, the Drua decided to go for a shot on goal. They wanted… no, they NEEDED this win. Reserve Serupepeli Vularika stepped up and did not disappoint, slotting the goal and taking the margin out to a converted try. 17-24 with 12 minutes to go.
Country were losing their forward dominance, and a mistake at the lineout in the 72nd minute saw the Drua pounce and Cyril Reece found himself in space, combining with the rest of the backline to make it into the 22. James Kane however intercepted the ball, but was pinged for being offside, and was sent to the bin for the remainder of the game, capping off what had a been a tough day at the office for the young winger. Country looked rattled as they were camped on their own tryline, and the Drua looked set to finally finish them off.
Turning to attack off the lineout, the visitors couldn’t capitalise, and Country returned in kind with a monstrous period of defence of their own which saw them rewarded with a penalty at scrum time, and after a period of broken play, Conor O’Shea performed one of the best 50-22 kicks you’ll ever see, and with under a minute to go, the Eagles were deep in enemy territory, and had the chance to tie things up. They turned to the set piece again, and relentlessly pounded the line, but yet again, the Drua defensive line stood firm.
Finally, after two minutes of extra time, the pressure from Country was too much, and Jack Grant cracked the Drua’s defensive line to score. O’Shea had to convert to even things up, and he did. James Quinn blew the final whistle, and we had our second draw in three rounds.
Fulltime Score: NSW Country 24 – 24 Fijian Drua
This was an outstanding match, with both teams dominating in different facets of the game. As disappointing as draws are, it was probably the most accurate reflection of the game.
The Country Eagles should be really happy with coming from behind, particularly against the current champions. Their forward dominance and huge effort on the part of the piggies was what saved this result for them. In addition, their game management was outstanding, choking the Drua’s attacking style and forcing them away from utilising their strengths of fast-running rugby. While they didn’t get the W, they did show an outstanding never-say-die attitude against a more fancied opponent. Add to the win Sydney had against fellow heavyweights Queensland Country earlier in the day, and it’s fair to say that this approach taking by NSW Rugby and the Waratahs is already starting to show results. Thank god! The Eagles however will have their work cut out next week, when they head to Ballymore to take on an on-form Brisbane City outfit.
While it was a draw, I feel the Drua will be very disappointed. There were a lot of positives for them from this game: their defensive effort today was nothing short of spectacular (something we haven’t really seen a lot of from this side), and when they got the ball, my god they looked dangerous, routinely outdoing the Eagles in sheer athletic ability when in open space. The problem is, (aside from a small period either side of halftime), they were leading for nearly the entire game on the score board, but on the field their lack of ability to come up with a counteracting game plan to the Eagles forward-dominated strategy knee-capped their potential to race away with the game when opportunities presented themselves. This was an opportunity that they couldn’t afford to miss, and to now not have a win after three rounds means this Drua is going have to realistically win every single game now if they have any hope of even making it to the semis and defending the Toast Rack. Next week, they head home to take on Sydney.
The Game Changer
The championship minutes at the end of both halves. The Eagles ability to crack the Drua in both halves during the dying stages reminds us all that rugby is an eighty minute game, if you take your foot off the throat for even a second, it’ll come back to bite you.
The GAGR MOTM
The set piece for the Eagles was outstanding. While I was tempted to give it to HJH for his eighty minute effort or Joeli Veitayaki Jr. from the Drua, the big difference was the management of the set piece by Tom Staniforth. This was a pure workhorse performance, and his execution at the lineout and scrumtime with Pat Tafa was nothing short of exceptional.
Rising Star Watch
Goddamn, so many people performed here! A big mention must go to the Drua fullback, Enele Malele, whose management of the backs and flawless day with the boot was instrumental in much of Drua’s dominance. Additionally, Mack Mason had a tough ask trying to contain the Drua’s attack, and he stood up during this game. However, the best rising star for me was Mark Nawaqanitawase, who had an absolute blinder out on the wing for Country in both attack and defence, as well as grabbing a meat pie to show for his efforts.
Crowd: around 1,250
NSW Country 24
Tries: Horton, Gordon, Nawaqanitawase, Grant
Cons: Kane 1/3, O’Shea 1/1
Cards: Kane (Yellow – ’72)
Fijian Drua 24
Tries: Matawalu, Radaniva, Tabulawaki
Cons: Malele 3/3
Pens: Vularika 1/1
Cards: Matawalu (Yellow – ’40+5)