Game 1 has come and gone and what a game it was!
If you didn’t watch the game and only saw the final score you would be inclined to think it was a walk in the park for the home side. It was everything but! The Flying Fijians came to play and in the process won the hearts of rugby fans worldwide, including the home crowd.
Fiji played with guts and determination, a tabu soro attitude and gave it everything.
Let’s take a look at what the team did well and what areas they will look to improve before the second game.Embed from Getty Images
The traditional white has been replaced with a modernised, horizontally lined white and black jersey. The new Nike design should of been the only talking point but instead politics reared its ugly head again in the one place we wish it wouldn’t. Regardless of anyones stance on vaccination, this was not the place to do it. The national jersey is sacred, it represents the people and quite frankly the people said no.
The lead up
An interrupted preparation is nothing new to a Fijian side. While the All-Blacks were conveniently tuning themselves up by beating up on our Pacific brothers Tonga, coach Vern Cotter and the rest of the team were forced to draft a gameplan to take on the Worlds best via video call whilst isolated in their own hotel rooms.
Starting halfbacks Frank Lomani and Moses Sorovi were stuck in Sydney, as was fly half Teti Tela. Peni Ravai and Peceli Yato only got out of isolation 3 days before the match.
And speaking of Peni Ravai
He put in a hell of a performance. Constantly charging at the All-Blacks defense and on a couple occasions coming out the other side. I’ll go as far as to say he was the best prop on the field. His 23 metres were the most by any front rower in the match.Embed from Getty Images
Mesake Doge held his own in the scrum and was busy in defense racking up 8 tackles without missing any.
The whole front row stood up and won all but one scrum. A scrum that had the ref been paying attention he would have seen the ball was out and left his whistle in his pocket.
Sam Matavesi delivered once again and carried his impressive club form into the match, outplaying Codie Taylor. His break down the sideline would make any winger proud. Avoiding tackles, beating tackles and offloading whilst being held by two men to set up a beautiful try. He was also very busy around the park, even unintentionally knocking over halfbacks.
The Set Piece
11 wins from 13 lineouts. Leone Nakarawa got the lions share with 6 targets and wins while Mesulame Kunavula got 2. Peceli Yato was targeted twice later in the game. It wasn’t perfect but it was far from bad. The rolling maul was our greatest strength on the night but also proved to be our greatest weakness. It started out well but gradually got worse defensively and the All-Blacks took full advantage. This continues to be a work in progress but it’s pleasing to know we can match it with the best in this area. This is the second time we have forced a penalty try from our attacking mauls in recent years, the first against Wales at the 2019 World Cup.
Not one for the backs
In the lead up to the game, Vern Cotter alluded to the team playing Fiji style rugby with a closed roof and dry track suiting the Fijian style of play. The All-Blacks were probably expecting a more open game like many of us did. Their defense was stretched, often putting the taller Jordy Barrett opposite Nemani Nadolo and moving Sevu Reece one in. Nadolo was quite as were most the backline but his presence alone forced the New Zealand defense to always have one eye on him.Embed from Getty Images
Eroni Sau’s break down the right touchline was the best run by any of our backs and minutes later he ran onto a beautiful inside pass from Simione Kuruvoli, nearly scoring in the process. The sledgehammer put in a performance that demands he is always considered for the starting winger spot going forward.
The match was dominated by forward battles and we didn’t get to see the much of the backline. Kini Murimurivalu actually troubled the opposing defense and was solid at the back all night. He was unlucky to get binned in the second half. Referee Paul Williams telling captain Levani Botia he warned them several times but none of those warnings came through on the live telecast so we were left scratching our heads.Embed from Getty Images
I must say I was very impressed with Levani Botia. Brought his A-game, always in the rucks going after the ball and causing turnovers. He hit anything that moved, most notably Damian McKenzie. But that’s nothing new. What impressed me most was his leadership. Vern Cotter said before the match that Botia is a “natural leader” and he was right. The Demolition Man frequently questioned the referee’s decisions and let him know when he made a bad call. He grew an extra leg on the night and was one of our best. A real captains knock.
Ben Volavola was put under a lot of pressure on the night, often looking to pass wide but forced to keep it tight with the All-Blacks umbrella defense. He did manage to beat a few tackles but was caught isolated on a couple of runs instead of putting in a clearing kick. This is definitely one area the coaching staff will give a bit of attention this week with Cotter saying “we could have been better with our exits”.Embed from Getty Images
The first All-Blacks mid-field bomb went up and everyone held their breath for a second as the young halfback stood underneath. It wasn’t a problem for Simione Kuruvoli who defused the kick and was great all night in every aspect of his role. Quick passing and got around the field really well, even putting in a couple of clearing kicks. He had the ball knocked out a couple of times but this is a minor fix and will only help him moving forward. Never looked out of place at all and his exit in the second half “changed the game” according to the coach.
Vern Cotter emptied the bench. Everyone got a run. Setariki Tuicuvu came on to replace Kuruvoli for a HIA and made his presence felt after putting in a big shot on Ethan Blackadder and forcing a mistake. He also forced a turnover later in the match.
Manasa Mataele replaced Nadolo but couldn’t get much of the action likewise Eneriko Buliruarua who came on later in the match. Neither saw much of the ball.
The front row on the bench were solid when they were called on. Haereiti Hetet was very busy churning out 5 tackles, 3 carries for 9 metres. Peceli Yato made an impact and according to Rugby Pass made the most metres of any player in the team with 33 from 7 carries. Nearly got a try off a break late in the game and was at the forefront of the Fiji rolling maul that resulted in a penalty try.
Outstanding! If they didn’t know Johnny Dyer before this game, they do now. His performance will be remembered for a long time. He was everywhere and the best forward on the field. His ruthlessness at the breakdown really made the All-Blacks backrow look average. Constantly turning the ball over himself, slowing it down and forcing penalties for Fiji. His steal just before half time stopped the All-Blacks scoring after mounting pressure for the last 4 minutes of the half.
Mesulame Kunavula had 8 tackles for the night with only 1 miss. It directly led to a try but the big man was not happy with that effort as you could clearly see from his reaction. Apart from that hiccup he was at it again making metres after contact and getting Fiji on the front foot and was there to finish the move by Matavesi and Temo Mayanavanua down the touchline.Embed from Getty Images
Big Albert Tuisue turned in his best performance for Fiji. Not that he has had a bad performance in the white jersey, he just went up another level on the night. He was at his aggressive best in both attack and defense and charged into the line at every opportunity. Put a good shot on Hoskins Sotutu late in the first half and was a handful all night. Nearly got a second try prior to the penalty try in the second half.
All things considered, the Flying Fijians put in a hell of a performance. They pushed one of the best sides in the world and exposed them in some areas. The best part is, there is so much more to improve on. They were physical and dominated the breakdowns, forcing a turnover on 11 occasions. Unheard of when it comes to the All-Blacks, and even more impressive it’s from a “Tier 2 side”
3 points – Johnny Dyer
2 points – Albert Tuisue
1 point – Levani Botia
The All-Blacks have been criticised for their lack of physicality and giving up so much possession. So we can expect a fired up home side looking to put on a clinic. I expect a few changes like Peceli Yato coming into the starting side and Teti Tela to come onto the bench. Whether Frank Lomani and Moses Sorovi make it in time is yet to be confirmed.
What did you think of the match?
The team made Fijians everywhere proud, especially those at home. And in many ways that was the objective. The bigger picture. After everything that’s been happening regarding covid, they really did put a smile on everyone’s faces. Tell us what you thought of the match and what were your favourite moments. Drop a comment below and join in the conversation.