Fiji have secured a spot in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup with a hard-fought 38-10 win over a spirited Italian side tonight at GIO Stadium.
After a tight and scrappy opening half, Mick Potter’s side did look vulnerable at times in the second half against a determined Italian side, before a number of late tries ensured Fiji would continue their perfect start to the tournament and end their group campaign on top of Pool D.
Seven penalties inside the opening 10 minutes of the match saw both sides struggle to gain ascendency, before a break from Marcelo Montoya inside his own 10 metre-line sparked the Fijians to life — racing 70m downfield before being stopped by James Tedesco. However, Tedesco’s infringement in the play-the-ball would spark a melee, leading to Jayden Walker being sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes for foul play.
After butchering several attacking chances, Fiji looked to finally have first points when Kevin Naiqama produced a lovely bat-on to Suliasi Vunivalu, who cut inside several defenders to score, but the Bunker controversially denied the try upon review.
Off the back of that penalty, Italy would work the ball downfield and sensationally take the lead through Josh Mantellato after Terry Campese found the winger with a cut-out.
The winger narrowly missed his conversion from out wide, leaving the score at 4-0.
Another error from Fiji gave Italy the chance to extend their lead, but a forward pass from Tedesco to Richard Lepori on the far side saw the chance go to waste.
With Walker returning to the field, Fiji would eventually post their first points of the night through captain Kevin Naiqama, who took advantage of an error at the back from Mason Cerruto to crash over next to the posts — leveling the match after 27 minutes.
Apisai Koroisau had no problems converting to give the Bati a 6-4 lead.
After a heated opening 25 minutes, the game took another turn when Jarryd Hayne and Joseph Tramontana were both sent to the sin-bin following another coming together. Neither side was able to take advantage of the extra space on the field, however, with Fiji particularly wasteful with the ball — coming up with a slew of errors.
As the half-time siren loomed, a determined run from Junior Roqica put Fiji on the attack one final time, with Henry Raiwalui stepping on the inside of several defenders to crash over under the posts, giving Fiji a slender eight-point advantage at the main break.
Italy would refuse to go away and would come out firing in the second half — scoring a contender for the try of the World Cup through Nathan Milone, who soccered a kick from 40 metres out before racing through to collect the ball and dive over untouched.
Mantellato converted to cut the lead to 12-10, before Italy were denied the lead thanks to an incredible try-saver from Naiqama — stripping Cerruto just short of the line.
That would turn out to be a huge play for the Bati, who raced up field and crossed for points after an offload from Taane Milne put Brayden Williame in the clear 30m out.
Koroisau was unable to convert from the sideline, leaving the score at 16-10.
Having been denied earlier in the first half, Vunivalu would eventually grab his try with 20 minutes remaining in the match — proving too hard to handle for the Italian defenders as he charged through the line from 50m out before racing away to score.
Koroisau’s straightforward conversion from in front took the Fiji lead out to 22-10.
Vunivalu would make it back-to-back tries in the space of five minutes when a clever kick back on the inside from Milne found the star winger close to the line, before Milne continued his strong night by converting from the sideline to take the score to 28-10.
Less than nine minutes after scoring his first, Vunivalu would complete his hat-trick after another try assist from Milne — his seventh of the tournament — with the Wests Tigers-bound centre slotting another goal to take Fiji's lead to an unassailable 34-10.
Naiqama would cap off a superb night with a try-assist five minutes from time, sending Montoya over in the corner, with Milne narrowly missing his first conversion of the night.
Fiji will now face the loser of Saturday's clash between New Zealand and Tonga in the quarterfinals, with the winner through to the final four of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Fiji 38 (Vunivalu 3, Naiqama, Raiwalui, Williame, Montoya tries; Koroisau 3/4, Milne 2/3 goals) def. Italy 10 (Mantellato, Milone tries; Mantellato 1/2 goals) at GIO Stadium