Queensland Country will return to Australia with the Horan-Little Shield, after they became the first side to beat the Fijian Drua on home soil, 24-17.
The four-tries-to-three win means Country jump to top spot on the NRC table, and they will be looking to wrap up a home final in next weekend’s final round match against Perth Spirit.
Fijian Drua picked up a bonus point in the seven-point loss, but are vulnerable in their quest to qualify for a maiden NRC finals series.
A frenetic start to the game saw both teams playing end-to-end for the first 15 minutes, looking for any opportunity.
Queensland Country posted the first points, with no. 8 Caleb Timu charging down a clearing kick on the Drua line, before regathering and scoring the first try of the game.
The Drua found themselves in early penalty trouble, with the tally climbing to 9-0 against them at one point during the first half.
Lock Mataiasi Ucutabua found himself in the sin bin in the 24th minute after repeated infringements, with Country’s scrum taking advantage and Timu crashing over for his second try to take a 12-0 lead soon after.
The home team hit straight back, however, with some smart play opening the Queensland Country defence up, before Drua captain John Stewart carried a couple of defenders over for their first points of the match.
Fullback Apisalome Waqatabu converted to bring the score back to 12-7, but then found himself staring at a yellow card from the restart, for tripping.
Half-time was welcomed by both teams, with the frantic pace only just slowing down before the break, and the visitors holding their 12-7 lead.
Country started the second half without prop Sef Fa’agase, however, earning the third yellow card of the half for preventing a quick Drua free kick.
The Drua levelled the score straight after the break, with Waqatabu scoring in the corner but the Drua found themselves back in penalty trouble with their scrum unable to withstand the Queensland Country pressure.
Mosese Ducivaki earned the home side’s third card of the day in the 55th minute, but Country weren’t able to take advantage, pinged for an early push on the reset.
Queensland Country did finally break through in the 61st minute, with some clean hands sending flyhalf Teti Tela over out wide, but the mistakes were starting to creep into the Country game.
A Fijian Drua special from deep in their own half produced a definite try of the year candidate in the 68th minute, scrumhalf Frank Lomani finishing off a nice movement, including a wonderful back-of-the-hand flick pass from Eroni Sau.
Waqatabu couldn’t convert however, with the 17-17 scoreline setting up a grandstand finish in the last ten minutes.
Queensland Country were doing well to slow the game down over the final stages, and some lovely catch-and-pass skills sent Eto Nabuli over in the corner, with James Tuttle’s sideline conversion making it 24-17 with five minutes to play.
A crucial Tai Ford turnover penalty three minutes from time killed off a Drua raid, and more desperate Queensland Country line defence thwarted the last-second play from the home side, holding them up over the line and securing a hard-fought win.
Fijian Drua 17
Tries: Stewart, Waqatabu, Lomani
Yellow cards: Ucutabua (24’), Waqatabu (30’), Ducivaki (55’)
Queensland Country 24
Tries: Timu 2, Tela, Nabuli
Cons: Tuttle 2
Yellow cards: Fa’agase (39’)