Flying Fijians qualify for RWC 2015
By Greg Thomas, Lautoka
Fiji have qualified as Oceania 1 for Rugby World Cup 2015 in England by beating the Cook Islands 108-6 in Lautoka. The Flying Fijians scored 17 unanswered tries in a runaway victory in front of their adoring home fans at Churchill Park.
Fiji join hosts England, Australia, Wales and the yet to be determined Repechage winner in Pool A, and will have the honour of playing England at Twickenham in the opening match of the tournament on 18 September.
Fiji were firm favourites going into the match and the score underlines their dominance in the qualifier although surprisingly the Cook Islands led 6-5 after nearly half an hour of play. Fiji full back Metuisela Talebula had crossed for a very early try after a minute but Cooks replied with some determined play and pressure in the Fiji 22 that led to two penalty goals from the boot of fly half Sam Vaevae.
At that point the Cooks were giving as good as they got and led by a back row of Kima Iosua, Nick Connal and Steve Stephano tackled and pressured Fiji into mistake after mistake. Fiji did have the upper hand in the scrum and lineouts but appeared over-eager with ball in hand.
Nadolo turns the tide
However on the half hour mark Fiji eventually found a way through the dogged defence with two pieces of terrific counter attack from their own half. Crusaders centre Nemani Nadolo led the way by breaking midfield tackles and finding space and scrum half Nemla Kenatale and then centre Asaeli Tikoirotuma both crossed under the posts within minutes of each other.
Nadolo then crossed himself after some slick handling from his teammates followed by powerful wing Watisoni Votu as Fiji found gaps in the tiring Cooks defensive line. In the space of 10 minutes four tries had turned the game and Fiji took a 29-6 lead into the interval.
Unfortunately for the brave Cook Islands the second half became one-way traffic and Fiji scored a further 12 tries and 79 points. Nadolo added two tries to give him a hat-trick in a fine all round display that included three conversions. His teammates, fullback Talebula, replacement scrum half Nikola Matawalu and replacement three-quarters Adriu Delai and Timoci Nagusa scored a brace of tries each.
Among the onslaught fullback Metuisela Talebula kicked a dropped goal while fly half Jonetani Ralulu kicked seven conversions. There was also a very popular try for Test debutant Leroy Atalifo who came on as a replacement prop in the second half.
Cooks captain Stan Wright was philosophical after the match, his country’s worst-ever international defeat. "As you can see by the scoreline it was a hard game and we were simply outclassed by a better side,” Wright said.
"The gap between the elite and us showed out there today and we've got quite a bit of ground to cover to get up to their level. We're not a big nation and we need more guys putting their hands up to play for the Cook Islands because we lack depth and we need more players."
Winning captain Akapusi Qera was ecstatic at qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2015. "We knew the Cook Islands would come at us in the forwards in the first 20 minutes. We expected that and we managed to compensate and come out with the win,” said Qera.
"It's a big game for us as a team and as a nation. It's a big thing for a rugby player growing up to qualify for the Rugby World Cup and that's what motivated us in the second half."