The Canberra Vikings are into the NRC final next weekend with a tough 40-35 win over the Perth Spirit in the first semi-final in Canberra. It was a real battle as the lead changed hands numerous times but the Vikings came out on top despite a late surge from Perth.
Rob Valetini was immense for the Vikings with the match a huge forwards battle but an unlikely hat trick from Perth lock Richie Arnold before half time wasn’t enough for the Spirit as they came up just short of a comeback win.
It didn’t take the visitors long to get on the board as Richie Arnold scored for the Spirit after just three minutes. Peter Grant converted to make it 7-0.
When the Vikings had their chance with the ball, Perth made it difficult for them with some strong defence to make the home side look a bit disjointed in attack with loose passes halting any momentum.
Perth looked the better of the sides in the opening twenty minutes and if not for some scrambling Vikings defence, they would have been next to score after James Verity-Amm found space after Shambeckler Vui proved too hard to bring down.
It took until the 24th minute for the Vikings to get their first points and they certainly had to do it the hard way. After 19 phases of mostly pick and drive play, Rob Valetini came up with the five-pointer from close range and Wharenui Hawera converted to level the scores.
The forwards battle throughout the half was one to watch with both sides going hard at the ball and in defence with the Valetini vs Naisirani very interesting to watch.
The Spirit hit back not long after with Arnold bagging his second of the night. This came on the back of a penalty after Marcel Brache was ruled to have been tackled in the air and Perth took their opportunity. Grant’s conversion made it 14-7.
The scores were level again minutes later as Vikings prop Faalelei Sione barged over from close range. This try also came after a penalty as the Spirit gave one away in their half off the restart.
Just before the half time break, the Vikings edged in front with Andrew Muirhead getting his name on the score sheet. Again, this try came from a penalty with the Spirit a touch unlucky off the restart to be offside. Ben Johnston used the gale nicely to find good field position and he was involved again to give Muirhead the last pass and he evaded two defenders down the left wing to score.
But right on half time the Spirit hit back with Richie Arnold bagging his hat trick. The Spirit took advantage of a number of penalties after the siren and the big man didn’t need a second invitation after the forwards did all the hard work. Grant had his third conversion to leave it at 21-21.
The Spirit were the first to score in the second half. It was a very messy try as the Vikings got tangled up trying to clear the ball near their own line but Anaru Rangi was alert to the situation to dive on the ball to put Perth back in the lead. Grant continued his 100% kicking record to make it 28-21.
The Vikings thought they had hit back three minutes later to Tom Cusack but a forward pass was ruled by referee Damon Murphy to let Perth off the hook.
The home side was again denied just minutes later, this time from the TMO, after Lolo Fakaosilea appeared to place the ball against the post but the TMO had to go with the referee’s on field call of not releasing the ball in the tackle.
They wouldn’t be denied a third time, however, after Perth’s discipline came under the microscope and reserve prop Harrison Lloyd scored from close range and Hawera’s conversion leveled it again, this time at 28-28 with just over 20 minutes to go.
Tom Cusack wasn’t having a good night trying to get over the line as he was held up over the line after the Vikings turned over the ball in the Perth 22 with Rob Valetini throwing a reasonable flick pass for the final pass.
From the resulting scrum, the Vikings went in front again, with Tom Banks unmarked out wide after an untidy passage off the back of the scrum. Hawera was unable to convert from out wide to give Perth a sniff at 33-28.
Damon Murphy had enough of the Perth discipline issues in the second half and Kane Koteka got a ten minute rest after a run of penalties went against them .
Almost straight away the Vikings punished that indiscretion as Hawera streaked away scored what looked to be the match winner after Dean Oakman-Hunt, in for Blake Enever, found a slight gap in the defence.
Even down to 14 men the Spirit didn’t give up as reserve hooker Sama Malolo crashed over from close range after Richie Arnold went close to scoring his fourth. Grant converted to make it five point game with as many minutes to go.
The Spirit had one last chance to level or snatch a win, like last week, but some strong defence by the Vikings on their own line held up the Spirit. The Vikings just needed to hang on to their own ball, which they did, and ran out 40-35 winners.
The Game Changer
The Yellow card to Koteka saw the Vikings go 12 points in front and the Spirit did their best to come back, which they are capable of, but it was too much to bridge.
The G&GR MOTM
Rob Valetini – Had some strong carries and had a great battle with Isi Naisirani all throughout the match and all this as a 19 year old. His tackle with 2 minutes saved the Vikings.
Special mention also to Richie Arnold who bagged a hat trick.
Score & Scorers
Tries: Valetini, Sione, Muirhead, Lloyd, Banks, Hawera
Conversions: Hawera 5
Tries: Arnold 3, Rangi, Malolo
Conversions: Grant 5
69 mins – Koteka (Spirit) – Yellow