The Fijian Drua have overcome an 11 point difference at halftime to defeat the Canberra Vikings 35-28 to advance to their first final in the NRC. In a reverse of their first encounter, it was the Vikings that came out of the blocks the stronger team in hot and wet conditions, dominating possession and territory to race out to an 18-7 halftime lead.
But it would be the home side who would finish the better side on the back of strong performances from Alivereti Veitokani and their bench, to confirm their place in the NRC grand final.
In wet and hot conditions, both sides seemed to have altering strategies in terms of how to deal with the wet ball. Whilst the Vikings focused on gaining good field possession through kicking the ball, the Drua was business as usual throughout the first half, looking to entertain the crowd with expansive football.
This would be to their detriment in the first half, with the Fijian side coughing up the ball numerous times and they gave away penalties in bundles to march the Vikings up the field.
The Vikings would take advantage of their strong field position in the 10th minute, with towering Lock Rory Arnold held up over the line after some great scrambling cover defence by the Drua. The Vikings would eventually cross from the resulting 5m scrum, with Andy Muirhead crossing in the corner after a series of catching and passing from their backline. Replacement half Noah Lolesio, who was subbed on for Wharenui Hawera who departed with an apparent leg injury, missed the conversion from the sideline to keep the score at 5-0.
The Drua was their worse enemy in the first half, providing the Vikings with easy opportunity to get straight back into field position after conceding a short arm freekick before not throwing the resulting lineout straight. This put the Vikings in prime position, with winger Lausii Taliauli crossing in the corner after a lovely floating ball from Lolesio just evaded the grabs of Apisalome Waqatabu extended the lead out to 10-0 after 20 minutes.
The Drua would then bounce back from their poor start, with halfback Frank Lomani crossing right next to the posts after the Drua forwards marched the ball into position after some strong runs from the ruck. Waqatabu would easily convert from in front to bring the margin back to 10-7 after 28 minutes.
However, the Drua would fall back into the same rhythm of conceding bundles of penalties, conceding three within 5 minutes, which allowed Lolesio to convert the easiest of penalties to push the score out to 13-7.
The constant penalties would catch up to the Drua, with second rower Albert Tuisue yellow carded after numerous infringements at the 39th minute for lifting the legs of a Vikings player in the maul.
The Vikings would capitalise on the advantage, earning a penalty from a barging scrum 15m out, which saw flanker Rob Valentini cross after sneaking onto the wing after the scrum and he received the quick tap from Joe Powell, showing a clean pair of hands to pick the ball up at his shoelaces and score to make the score 18-7 at half-time.
Half Time: Canberra Vikings 18-7
The Vikings would start the second half like they finished the first, with a penalty 5m out from another scrum infringement provided Tom Banks with an opportunity with quick ball, with the fullback taking on the line to score. Noah Lolesio continued his poor showing with the boot, missing the resulting conversion to ensure the score remained at 23-7.
At this point, it was great to see the return of Pete Samu from a knee ligament injury, or as Stephen Hoiles put during the coverage, a “knee replacement”.
Unfortunately for the Canberra side, this would also mark the return of the Fijians into the contest, as they have done several times within the regular season, with their half-time substitutions, along with an electric home ground sending the side into second gear.
The Drua would proceed to dominate the rest of the match, starting with a try to replacement prop Eroni Mawi after another strong series of 7+ phases of their forwards taking the ball over the advantage line from the ruck. Enele Malele would convert the try, reducing the gap back to 23-14.
They then reduced the margin back to 2 points, with Eramasi Rodrodro crossing under the posts after a strong run from their maestro flyhalf Alivereti Veitokani put them in prime position to strike with 20 minutes to go.
The flying Fijians would then show why they’ve become renowned as one of the most exciting teams in the NRC and World Rugby, with Veitokani once again breaking the line inside his own half, with some hot potato football putting Aparosa Tabulawaki over to give the Drua the lead for the first time in the match.
The Drua would confirm their place in the final, earning a penalty try with 4 minutes to go after a strong scrummaging performance, which was a complete 180 from the first half. The Vikings would score a consolation try after Tom Banks nearly crashed over from a clever Ryan Lonergan inside flick pass, with Lolesio crashing over after 12 phases near their goal line.
Full time: Fijian Drua 35 – Canberra Vikings 28
The Turning Point
The yellow carding of Albert Tuisue was the two-fold turning point of the match. The Vikings capitalised on the man advantage, scoring twice to put them out to a 17 point lead. However, after getting back to 15 men and injecting fresh blood into the contest, it was all the Drua in the final 30 minutes, allowing the Fijian side to run over the Vikings and ultimately secure the victory.
The GAGR MOTM
The MOTM is a tough choice, as it could have gone to any of the Drua forwards that came on at halftime to turn the tide. But I’m going to give to Alivereti Veitokani, once again he was crucial to their attack, his calmness in the situation and attacking flair was the difference in the end.
Rising Star Watch
I can’t split replacements Johnny Dyer and Enele Malele. Dyer defended strongly and broke 5 tackles in his short stint in the field, whilst Malele had a linebreak and a line break assist, along with being perfect with the boot which was ultimately the difference between the two sides.
Fijian Drua 35
Tries: Frank Lomani (28′), Eroni Mawi (52′), Eramasi Radrodro (60′), Aparosa Tabulawaki (68′), Penalty Try (77′)
Cons: Apisalome Waqatabu (28′), Enele Malele (53′,61′,69′)
Yellow Card: Albert Tuisue (38′)
Canberra Vikings 28
Tries: Andy Muirhead (13′), Lausii Taliauli (21′), Rob Valetini (40′), Tom Banks (46′), Noah Lolesio (80′)
Pens: Noah Lolesio (34′)