The boisterous crowd came expecting the brilliant and Fijian winger Marika Koroibete didn’t disappoint, scoring twice and producing a bone-jarring tackle to inspire his side to an historic 22-10 win over Papua New Guinea.
In the first of the two Pacific Tests at Cbus Super Stadium on Saturday night, Koroibete scored two first-half tries as the NRL experience of the Fijian team took advantage of PNG errors to open up an 18-0 lead at half-time before going on to win by 12 points.
The Kumuls worked their way back into the contest to trail 18-10 before Fijian centre Fabian Goodall pinched a 60-metre intercept to kill off the PNG surge.
Despite the deficit PNG began the second half with plenty of energy and brought the Kumul faithful to their feet in the 51st minute with winger Matt Trnka scored their first try of the night.
After an ill-advised offload by Fiji hooker Apisai Koroisau the Kumuls were handed some much-needed field position. The ball was quickly fired out to the left where centre Kata Ottia was able to create a two-on-one but with a try begging he seemingly surrendered in the tackle before producing a miracle offload right before he hit the turf, and Trnka was on hand to clean up the crumbs and dive over.
The once heady deficit was reduced to eight points in the 68th minute when Stanton Albert crashed through the attempted tackle of Korbin Sims, Ryan Millard and Kevin Naiqama to score just left of the posts.
Originally sent upstairs to the video referee as a ‘no try’ with doubts over a possible obstruction on Sims, the decision was overturned, the try awarded and the conversion by Noel Zeming brought the score back to 18-10.
PNG continued to create opportunities and were looking to attack when fullback Josh Damen drifted to the left edge near the halfway mark, his pass gleefully accepted by Goodall to run away and score the match-winner.
Although the scoreboard looked lopsided at the main break, the Kumuls enjoyed the better of the first 20 minutes but were made to pay for crucial errors midway through the first half.
Both teams started to play enterprising football after the 10-minute settling in period but it was Fiji who posted first points courtesy of skipper Jayson Bukuya.
An error by PNG back-rower Rhyse Martin on his own 20-metre line gifted Fiji field position that they had not previously enjoyed and it took just a few tackles before Darryl Millard sent Bukuya crashing over to the right of the posts.
A penalty against PNG for pulling the hair of Korbin Sims gave Fiji a set 20 metres out in the 27th minute and again they were quick to take advantage, a shift to the left and a floating cut-out pass by Millard creating the space for Brayden Wiliame to put Koroibete over for his first of the evening, Apisai Koroisau’s sideline conversion extending the lead to 12 points.
Buoyed by their scoreboard ascendancy Fiji began to deliver some audacious play – including a double flick-pass combination that almost led to a try – but it was Koroibete again who brought the crowd to their feet, this time at the defensive end.
Looking to exploit an overlap, Willie Minoga dummied to his outside support and ran square into the right shoulder of Koroibete, the Kumuls making an error from the next play on the halfway line.
Fiji were quick to stretch the defence from the ensuing set and a spread to the left through Millard and a tip-on from Kevin Naiqama gave Koroibete a clear run to the line for his second.
PNG’s best chance of the half didn’t come until the final minute when Ray Thompson chipped to the right-hand corner but winger Nene MacDonald was unable to secure possession from his flying leap.
Viliame Kikau, who was outstanding for Fiji in the first half, was taken from the field six minutes into the second half after copping a heavy knock in trying to make a tackle.
Fiji coach Rick Stone said after a strong first half his side had let the Kumuls back into the contest.
“We lost our way a little bit with a few errors and we didn’t start the second half well,” Stone said. “In the end we defended our line strong, we just made things a little bit harder for ourselves.
“One of our main things was to bring Kumuls off their own line and I thought we did that pretty well in the first half. When we got back to it a little bit later in the second half I thought it helped us a bit.
“For the week it is, we had half a dozen NRL quality players with us and a lot of young blokes and a couple of local Fijians. It’s a good result for us.”
PNG coach Mal Meninga said his side would learn a lot from the clash against a side boasting its fair share of NRL experience.
“With these guys it’s just about a bit of self belief, I know they’re playing against players that are in the NRL but when they think about it and how well they can be and get some confidence in their own ability they start to play well,” Meninga said.
Fiji 22 (Marika Koroibete 2, Jayson Bukuya, Fabian Goodall tries; Apisai Koroisau 3 goals) def. Papua New Guinea 10 (Matt Trnka, Stanton Albert tries; Noel Zeming goal) at Cbus Super Stadium.