5 Nov 2022
Five things we learned as New Zealand’s comeback victory over Fiji sets up Australia semi
Michael Maguire’s side surged back from 12 points down to beat brave Bati 24-18
By Josh Graham at MKM Stadium
Jordan Rapana’s late show edged New Zealand into a tantalising semi-final clash with Australia after a thrilling 24-18 win over Fiji.
For so long it looked like history would repeat itself as the Bati stormed into a 12-0 lead before being pegged back to 12-6 at half-time.
Captain Kevin Naiqama’s second try re-established the 12-point cushion shortly after the break but New Zealand came firing back with scores from Briton Nikora and Joey Manu to level affairs at 18-18.
Rapana’s penalty after a controversial successful captain’s challenge moved them two clear, the exact margin of defeat in this corresponding fixture in 2017, and his try in the corner at the death wrapped up a titanic tussle in Hull.
Here are five things we learned from the Kiwis’ last-eight victory ahead of a semi-final showdown with the Kangaroos on Friday night at Elland Road.
Captain’s challenge to the fore
Both sides had successful captain’s challenges at crucial points in the final quarter, underpinning the virtue of being savvy when questioning the official’s decision.
First, Fiji were given a reprieve after a knock-on from Maika Sivo under a high ball was let go when the video ref adjudged Peta Hiku was guilty of a push.
That turnaround let the Bati off the hook but the crucial decision fell on the wrong side as far as Fiji fans are concerned.
Joey Manu’s mazy run ended when the ball spilled out of a tackle with two-time NRL champion Viliame Kikau, referee Gerard Sutton blowing up for a knock-on.
The Kiwis, fresh from seeing Fiji’s successful challenge only minutes previous, opted to send it to the bunker and were repaid when several replays later an illegal strip was called.
Rapana showed nerves of steel to slot a decisive penalty with eight minutes to go and Fiji were unable to muster a response on the scoreboard despite engineering several threatening positions before the winger had the final say with a four-pointer.
Game flush with full-backs
Those in involved in rugby league knew plenty about Joey Manu coming into this World Cup.
But so rarely does the Sydney Rooster get to shine at full-back given the presence of Kangaroos captain James Tedesco, that it has been particularly refreshing to see him let loose in the No.1 jumper.
Despite being awarded the player of the match, it’s fair to say Manu was not always at his marvellous best in this encounter, producing a few uncustomary errors.
But the cream always rises to the top and when New Zealand needed him most the 26-year-old turned on the style, upping the ante and dragging his side back into the contest with the try that levelled the game with 17 minutes to go.
Manu’s counterpart Sunia Turuva was also in fine form, regularly scooping up loose balls and making inroads under pressure to avert the danger for Fiji.
The game really is spoilt with a plethora of outstanding operators patrolling the backfield, and Leeds waits for Manu and Tedesco, a match-up that is fantastically poised.
Close game stands NZ in good stead
Australia may be the favourites to defend their crown but New Zealand have one thing the Kangaroos do not, a proper testing encounter in the bank.
This was nothing short of a belting international fixture, it had it all. Some will argue the Kiwis were off the boil for large portions of the match, but Fiji’s ferocity simply did not allow them to exert the dominance that had come so easily in the group stage.
It's that man Kevin Naiqama again!
What a start to the second half from Fiji, they lead by 12 again.#RLWC2021 | @BBCSport | @fijirugbyleague | #NZLFIJ pic.twitter.com/le1Ut3nuXU
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) November 5, 2022
Coaches and pundits regularly talk of match fitness and getting players up to speed and good sides revel from coming out on top in close encounters.
Australia’s superiority means they have yet to be pushed remotely close and although New Zealand will know they need to up their level significantly to challenge Mal Meninga’s men, if push comes to shove, they know they can haul themselves out of trouble in a close one.
Goal-kicking worth its weight in gold
So much has been made about New Zealand’s lacklustre goal-kicking in the group stage but when it came to sudden death footy, they got it spot on.
Jordan Rapana’s composure from the tee was absolutely vital in helping the Kiwis keep pace with the Bati as Brandon Wakeham started slotting goals from the touchline with ease.
Rapana’s own touchline worldie from Mulitalo’s score made sure it was a still a one-point game as Fiji piled on the pressure in the first half.
And then when he had the opportunity to give New Zealand the lead for the first time in the game 72 minutes in, he made no mistake, so you can forgive his last attempt missing the target with the game done and dusted.
Games turn on smallest detail
At the highest level, games can twist on the smallest of details as Fiji found out on a chilly night in front of 7,080 people in Hull.
The Bati thought they had got the better of the captain’s challenges until Rapana’s penalty put paid to that.
But before that, with Wise Kativerata’s side in the ascendancy, Nikora’s try out of nothing started to swing the pendulum New Zealand’s way.
The Kiwi interchange looked to have been held short of the line, but Bati centre Semi Valemei briefly released him to allow co-tackler Api Koroisau the chance to pull off a ball strip like the ones we have seen Cameron Munster execute perfectly for Australia.
However, it was a suicidal play so close to the line as Nikora used his strength to brush off the Penrith Panther and dot down in what proved to be the beginning of the end for Fiji as they missed out on the World Cup semi-final for the first time since 2000.
The Rugby League World Cup promises to be the biggest, best and most inclusive event in the sport’s 127-year history with men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams competing in 61 games across 21 venues throughout England. Tickets are available via rlwc2021.com/tickets