A contest that many [including the Mole] hoped would provide a festival of running rugby was instead entirely underwhelming.
The first try of the match, through chirpy Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i, didn’t come until after an hour of play. At that stage the blue-shirted islanders were already ahead 15-0 through four Tusi Pisi penalties and a very well-taken drop goal from the same man. While the match livened up considerably in the last quarter, by then the game was essentially over as a contest.
The Samoan effort was largely built on the efforts of hard, straight running from backrowers Tu’ifua and Stowers and threequarters Mapusua and Tuilagi. Invention, some nice lines and lazy, mazy runs came from fullback and Man of the Match Paul Williams, and a dominant scrum really provided them with the strong set piece to punish the Fijians and earn territory. Big Cencus Johnston started his first match of the tournament at tighthead and took Fijian heavyweight Ma’afu to school, winning a number of penalties.
There wasn’t a huge amount of quality rugby in there – a lot of one-out runners, a lot of handling errors from both sides and a lot of botched tackles from the Fijians.
Samoa were clearly the better team from the off, and it was a hugely disappointing outing from the Fijians. They were hamstrung by a very, very poor performance from scrum-half Nemia Kenatale Rakunu, whose service was poor and slow. There’s danger in the Fijian backline through Gabriel Lovabalavu, Naps Nalaga and Vere Goneva, but the inside backs simply weren’t able to get them ball in space. That’s not to suggest that those outside backs mentioned above were faultless themselves … too often they dropped ball or allowed themselves to drift into touch. They seem to have adopted the post-Control edict of lateralism – ‘we used to go up and down, now we just go along.’
In truth, the great majority of the Fijian play was far, far from their best. They knocked on, threw passes to nobody and turned it over in contact with great regularity. With their scrum under pressure, and a stout Samoan defense [thankfully bereft of the overindulgent head-hunting that has characterised previous efforts], any challenge that they had hoped to offer was minimised.
For the Fijians, blindside Netani Talei was their standout, both in attack and defense. Enormous No8 Sisa Koyamaibole had some big rumbles up the middle of the field like a bad-tempered bull elephant, but too often he lost the ball in contact. Lovabalavu had good moments in the backline, but razor-sharp incisiveness and inventive lines of running were notable by their absence.
Samoa were more ruthless, more organised and looked very much like a Six Nations team. Both their scrum and their lineout were well-organised, and while they contributed a fair few of the knock-ons that made the match such a poor spectacle, they were just a different standard to Fiji. While they’re still theoretically in with a shout of qualification, this performance won’t have troubled the Boks, their next opponents. That game will have plenty of big collisions, but the Boks have far too much organisation, depth, physicality and class to lose it in any circumstances.