After being dominated in the contest for the best part of an hour, the Fijian Drua have stormed into their first ever National Rugby Championship Final by beating the Canberra Vikings.
It was five tries all in the semi-final in Lautoka, but extras off the boot – or a lack of them for Canberra – proved the difference and sealed an historic win for the Drua.
The Fiji side will play the winner of Queensland Country and the Western Force on the Gold Coast in next Saturday’s Final.
In soaking conditions after more than four hours of rain in Fiji on Saturday morning, the Vikings suffered an early blow, losing flyhalf Wharenui Hawera to injury inside the first ten minutes.
Rory Arnold was held up soon after, following Rob Valetini going close from a lineout set play variation, but the Vikings opened the scoring from the resulting scrum, when Andy Muirhead splashed over in the corner.
Canberra winger Lausii Taliauli was next to score, in the 21st minute, after rookie playmaker Noah Lolesio through a long ball over the top to send the big man in untouched.
The Drua held onto the ball long enough to strike back, with scrumhalf Frank Lomani diving over next to the posts in the 28th minute. Fullback Apisalome Waqatabu converted to cut the Vikings’ lead back to three points.
Canberra extended that out to six after Lolesio kicked a penalty in the 34th minute, and their set piece ascendency was underlined when Drua lock Albert Tuisue received a yellow card on the stroke of half time for a maul infringement.
Canberra won another scrum penalty, before some quick thinking from scrumhalf Joe Powell caught the Fijian defence napping out wide, to send boom backrower Rob Valetini crashing over.
Lolesio missed his third straight conversion, but the Vikings had a handy 18-7 lead as they ran to the sheds.
Canberra picked up where the left off straight after halftime when fullback Tom Banks crossed in the corner in the 46th minute, but the Drua managed to turn their scrum issues around with their replacement front rowers, with loosehead Eroni Mawi crashing over to bring the score back to 23-14 to the Vikings.
Fiji’s forwards where getting them back into the contest, and after Veitokani nearly broke through, big no.8 Eremasi Radrodro barged over under the posts. Replacement Enele Malele’s second conversion made it a two-point ball game, and with the home crowd right back into full voice on the Churchill Park hill.
The Drua hit the front in the 68th minute, when after the Drua’s replacement tighthead Luke Tagi unleashed a John Cartwright circa 1990 offload well before the halfway line, with winger Aporosa Tabulawaki finishing off a seventy-metre movement under the posts. Malele’s third conversion put the home side out to a 28-23 lead with eleven minutes to play.
All momentum in the game had shifted by this point, with Tuisue making up for his earlier indiscretion and starting to level Vikings in defence. The Drua forwards were queueing to pick and drive, and they nearly scored again in the 76th minute, only to be held up.
From the five-metre scrum, another huge Fijian scrum was edging toward the line with penalty advantage, and Vikings scrumhalf Ryan Lonergan’s infringement forced referee Graham Cooper to upgrade the advantage to a penalty try to seal the win.
Lolesio scored a late consolation try for the Vikings after a dozen phases on full time, but after missing all four conversions earlier in the game, it was too little too late.
From being well out of the contest with half an hour to play, the Fijian Drua had stormed into their maiden NRC Final in just their second year in the competition.
FIJIAN DRUA 35
TRIES: Lomani, Mawi, Radrodro, Tabulawaki, Penalty try
CONS: Waqatabu 1/1, Malele 3/3
CARDS: Tuisue (Yellow, 40’)
CANBERRA VIKINGS 28
TRIES: Muirhead, Taliauli, Valetini, Banks, Lolesio
CONS: Lolesio 0/4
PENS: Lolesio 1/1