By Brian Lowe, Date: 10/11/17 (Photo Credit NRLPhotos)
Fiji is the first team to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup quarterfinals with a 38-10 victory over a game Italy Friday night in Canberra.
It was the end of the road for an improving Italian side that gave it all it could, but it wasn’t enough.
Fiji got the first advantage in the game when Italy’s Jayden Walker was sin-binned following a skirmish between the two teams at around the 11-minute mark.
The Bati weren’t able to convert that advantage into points, and in fact it was the Azzuri who scored against the run of play when five-eighth Terry Campese threw a beautiful long pass to his winger Josh Mantellato who dotted down in the left-hand corner for a 4-0 lead.
It was the first time in the tournament that Fiji had found themselves behind on the scoreboard.
They were content to build a platform and their patience paid off in the 27th minute when captain Kevin Naiqama picked up a loose ball that had been kicked ahead to score beside the posts. Apisai Koroisau converted for a 6-4 margin.
Tempers frayed in the 33rd minute after a short kidney punch was landed by Italian hooker Joe Tramontana in a tackle. Fiji five-eighth Jarryd Hayne reacted, and both were yellow carded for their trouble.
The Fijians extended their lead just before halftime when Henry Raiwalui sold a dummy inside the Italian 10 meters and crossed for their second try. Koroisau added the extras for the Bati to take a 12-4 lead into the main break.
In an atypical statistic, there were 16 penalties awarded in the first forty minutes, eight apiece.
The second half began with yet more niggle between the two sides, but again it was the Azzuri who made the most of their opportunities when they scored what was probably the flukiest of the RLWC, if not the most spectacular.
Captain Mark Minichiello started it with an offload that was toed through and scooped up before being chipped ahead again for center Justin Castellaro to finally regather on the try line and dot it down. Mantellato converted to make the scoreline 12-10 to Fiji.
The Italians nearly scored again but for a dropped ball a couple of meters from the line when it was stripped in a tackle. Then it was Fiji’s turn to respond and respond they did.
Hayne ran across field and linked up with his support and two passes later, Brayden Williame ran it in to stretch the Bati lead to 16-10.
Minutes later, Campese left the field for the last time with a recurring calf strain that had kept him out of the first two games.
By now the Bati were playing more confidently and were starting to benefit from a glut of possession.
Fiji further extended their lead at the end of the third quarter when Suliasi Vunivalu bulled his way through some flimsy defense on the halfway line and ran it all the way to the try zone. Koroisau again kicked the conversion for a 22-10 ball game.
And from the restart, Vunivalu crossed for his seventh try of the RLWC by beating the cover to a bouncing ball that had been kicked ahead and with the successful extras, the Bati had pushed the scoreline out to 28-10.
The Melbourne Storm winger got his hattrick four minutes later when he was on the end of some more slick Fijian passing and stepped around the last line of Italian defense to score untouched. Taane Milne took over the goalkicking role and made it 32-10.
Fiji wasn’t done yet though, and left-wing Marcelo Montoya inflicted further misery on the Italians by finishing off a run down the flank to score. Milne missed the attempted conversion, but Fiji led by 38-10 inside the final five minutes.
Despite some last-minute rolling of the dice by Italy, that’s how the game finished and the Azzuri bowed out of the competition.
“We’ve worked pretty hard to get where we are,” Fiji’s Man-of-the-Match Apisai Koroisau told Seven after the match.
“We’ve had a lot of expectations on ourselves and we’re proud to make it to the quarterfinals and hopefully we can take it one step forward to the semis.”
Tries: Vunivalu 3, Naiqama, Raiwalui, Wiliame, Montoya. Goals: Koroisau 3, Milne 2.
Tries: Mantellato, Milone. Goal: Mantellato.