The Fijian Drua have won their maiden National Rugby Championship in just their second season, and in their first final appearance, overcoming a very good Queensland Country side in front of a huge Churchill Park crowd in Lautoka.
The final was in instant classic, with elements of the defensive battle won Perth Spirit the 2016 title and the sporadic points explosions that pushed Country to their maiden championship last season.
Here are the moments that stood out for me...
Fiji triumph on the back of un-Fiji rugby
The sight of thousands of umbrellas on the Churchill Park embankment was colourful and great to see, for sure, but it was also an immediate indicator of what sort of rugby the final would require. Though the game might eventually open up – and it did – this was going to have to be a game won on a platform of hard work, rolled-up sleeves, and taking whatever metres could be found.
On paper, this felt like the contest was evening out, maybe even tipping it toward Queensland Country, whose young pack has showed an encouraging appetite of getting stuck into the tough stuff, and by backing their set piece strengths. And in the opening stages, it was Country who grasped this the fastest.
When Chris Feauai-Sautia crashed over in the corner to open the scoring, it was reward for the Country forwards taking the direct route first.
What happened next, then, was somewhat unexpected. The Drua replied through the same direct channels, and that’s not so surprising, but the fact that they put the offload away was. They got into the contest through the pick-and drive and their scrum, and then proceeded to score their first four tries the same way.
Bullocking no.8 Eramasi Radrodro has been outstanding for the Drua since winning the starting spot mid-season, and he was in a three-way battle with locks Peni Naulago and Albert Tuisue for the best forward on the field in the first half.
All three barged over from short range, and Tuisue grabbed a second straight after the break, too. His form will undoubtedly be impressing Flying Fijians coach John McKee ahead of their Spring Tour.
The Drua led 26-12 with half an hour to play, had scored four tries to that point, and all of them had started in inside the Country 22. This was a Drua side intent on winning by whatever it took.
Petaia dials up the ‘beast mode’
I really don’t know how to contain the excitement about 18-year-old Queensland Country centre Jordan Petaia anymore. And there might not be any point, anyway, if he’s going to score tries like he did in the 30th minute.
There was nothing unusual in the fact that Country had found their way deep into attack again to that point, and in all truth, Country didn’t do a lot wrong all game, despite the margin in the second half jumping out to two converted tries. They were never really out of the contest.
That was certainly the case when scrumhalf Tate McDermott threw a long pass across the face of the posts to Petaia, who had to go down on one knee to safely take the pass in. When the no.13 looked up, he had two Fijian forwards coming straight at him, and another two defenders outside him. He was literally the only Country player in the frame.
From that stationary start, Petaia ran straight for the right-hand upright, beat the tackle of Drua fullback Apisalome Waqatabu and two others immediately after, and then with raw power and leg drive, got over the line with two Drua defenders on his back – on of them 130kg tighthead prop Peni Makutu – to score next to the post.
18-year-old centres shouldn’t be able to do that sort of thing; it was an absolutely incredible try. Imagine what he’ll be like when he grows into his body. A future star, without a shadow of a doubt.
The undisputed Non-Try of the Year
It was the ultimate ‘BIG BLOKE IN SPACE’ moment of the 2018 NRC season.
Just before half-time, and from their side of halfway, the Drua threw the ball wide with nothing doing, but their skipper Mosese Voka – who was excellent again – found a little bit of space in and around the inner-tramline.
With a Country defender in front of him, he did the right thing and drew-and-passed to a man outside him. When that man turned out to be hooker Mesulame Dolakoto, this play looked set for its natural conclusion.
Except that Dolakoto proceeded to pin the ears back from forty out and accelerated like champion racehorse Winx!
In no time at all, Dolakoto crossed the Country 22m, looked home and hosed as he approached the five-metre line, and dived for the corner with Country flyhalf Hamish Stewart arriving at the same time. It was a late Try of the Year contender, for sure!
But then the end-on angle showed the cruellest possible detail: Dolakoto’s right toe had dragged over the touchline as he dived for the try-line.
Hookers the world over were filthy, with a combination of TMO Tevita Rokovereni, gravity and physics denying one of the great big-man tries in memory.
Veitokani benefits from the turning point of the match
Up until the 61st minute of the final, Drua flyhalf and runaway winner of the inaugural NRC Rising Star award, Alivereti Veitokani had been heavily involved, but hadn’t quite had the ‘moment’ that he was inevitably going to have in the Final.
But when his moment came, the NRC title was on its way to Fiji.
Country were deep on attack, only for Stewart to lose the ball in contact nearing the Drua 22m line. Flying onto the loose ball, Waqatabu hacked it downfield, forcing Country fullback Jock Campbell back well into his own half to retrieve. As Campbell secured the ball and turned around, he was belted by Waqatabu, who had followed the kick downfield.
The ball spilt loose again, but into the hands of Avete Daveta, who in turn found Veitokani in support on the outside like he has done throughout this season. Once the ball was in the hands of the outstanding no.10 to score from 25m out, the momentum swing in the game was complete.
It was a huge moment in the game, killing off any hope of the Country comeback. And who else but Alivereti Veitokani was there in the right spot to make it count.
Front row finishers
Just as in last week’s semi-final win over the Canberra Vikings, the finishing ability of the Drua’s replacement front rowers was what got the job done in the Final as well.
Loosehead Ratu Nauma and hooker Eroni Mawi had an impact, but the star again was tighthead Luke Tagi, who was quickly dubbed ‘Tagi-Bill Williams’ by former Wallabies backrower Stephen Hoiles in the Fox Sports commentary, such is the pure wonder of the big man’s ability to get his right arm out front and throw an offload.
This column drew the comparison of former Penrith Panthers rugby league second-rower John Cartwright in describing Tagi’s sweet offload for winger Aporosa Tabulawaki in last week’s semi-final win over the Vikings, and Tagi was every bit as good again in the Final.
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has long spoken of the need for his bench ‘finishers’ to influence the contest, and it just may be that Drua coach Seni Seruvakula has unearthed the best finishers in this year’s competition.
A quick note to finish my NRC coverage for 2018, and that’s to congratulate the Fijian Drua and the Fijian Rugby Union on their title win, and for everything they’ve brought to the competition since joining it last season. The NRC is all the better for their involvement.
Thanks also to RUGBY.com.au for having me back for what has been yet another brilliant NRC season. This competition is vital for the long-term health of Australian rugby, and so if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen this season, make sure you bring a couple of mates with you in 2019. It’s up to all of us to help the NRC take the next step to the high-quality rugby product we all know it can be.