NRC: Drua pull off amazing escape in Melbourne to keep title defence alive

NRC
by Emma Greenwood

The Fijian Drua have engineered an amazing escape to end the Rising's finals hopes and keep their own NRC title defence alive with a nail-biting 40-36 win in Melbourne.

Down 26-7 at halftime, the Drua looked down and out against a Melbourne side that controlled the set piece magnificently, scoring four tries in the first term.

The Fijians' hopes of a title defence seemed shot before an incredible second-half turnaround which handed them the lead before a thrilling final 20 minutes in which momentum swing several times.

The Rising dominated the set piece in the opening half, controlling the tempo and tenor of the game with their control of the ball.

Ah-Mu Tuimalealiifano on the way to one of his two tries against the Drua. Photo: Getty Images

But that all changed in the second term, with the Drua running in four unanswered tries in a massive momentum swing that handed them a 28-26 lead with just under half an hour still remaining.

But when Rusiate Nasova was sin binned for a high tackle on Rob Leota, the Rising regained the lead through a penalty kick and seemed back on track with an extra man.

It did not change the Drua's intent though and they were next to score when Seru Vularika barged over, the lead changing hands again to set up a thrilling finish which included a penalty try, more lead swings and a final, desperate, defensive play that handed the visitors an amazing victory.

The Drua suffered a blow in the opening minutes when winger Aporosa Tabulawaki was left clutching at his left knee before being helped from the ground.

It did not slow the Drua down though, with the Fijians pinching the ball from Melbourne and pushing the pill through hands for fullback Peceli Nacebe to score the opening try.

 

Melbourne answered back quickly, opening their account when winger Nailati Ukalele - a member of their own Fijian connection - touched down to cap a patient build-up.

The Rising were in again nine minutes later when Ah-Mu Tuimalealiifano perfectly finished a set move from a scrum deep in the Drua's territory.

In a dominant forward showing, Matt Gibbon crawled his way over from a pick and drive and the Rising were in a fourth time before the break, with Tuimalealiifano scored his second of the afternoon, finishing a great team effort to give the home side a 26-7 halftime lead.

The Drua needed to be the first to score in the second half if they were a chance of working their way back into the game and they did that, capitalising on a turnover from the home side and putting the ball through multiple sets of hands before finding Cyril Reece, who crashed over.

If that was impressive, the next effort was sublime. As the ball was spun wide, Nacebe found Jiuta Wainiqolo on his inside, with the utility beating five defenders on his jinking 60m run to the line.

Rising winger Nailati Ukalele touches down for the Rising's opening try. Photo: Getty Images

The effort sparked the Drua's confidence, with players who looked plodding in the first half, suddenly lining up in support as the ball was thrown around freely, leading to another five-pointer, this time to replacement hooker Ratunaisa Nauma who showed great pace to race away and score.

Enele Tikotani's fourth conversion gave the Drua a 28-26 lead in a massive momentum swing in the match.

A high tackle on Rob Leota led to Rusiate Nasova being sent to the sin bin in the 60th minute, with the Rising regaining the lead when James So'oialo knocked over the penalty.

Despite being undermanned, the Drua were next to score when Seru Vularika barged over, the lead changing hands again.

FULL REPLAY

 

The Rising forwards regained their mojo in the final stages, controlling the ball despite immense pressure and continued infringements from the Drua, something that eventually earnt Melbourne a penalty try.

The score handed the Rising the lead again and set up a thrilling finish, with the Drua delivering the drama.

Throwing caution to the wind again, the Drua scored what looked to be the match-winning try through Wainiqolo with less than five minutes remaining.

But a brain explosion from Nacebe, who decided to chip and chase from the restart, gave the Rising another chance and while they botched that, their front row won a tighthead penalty in the dying stages.

But the Drua were able to shut down the resulting lineout maul to stay alive in the competition, ending Melbourne's hopes in the process.

RESULT

Fijian Drua 40

Tries: Nacebe, Reece, Wainiqolo 2, Nauma, Vularika

Cons: Tikotani 5

Melbourne Rising 36

Tries: Ukalele, Tuimalealiifano 2, Gibbon, penalty try

Cons: So'oialo 3

Pens: So'oialo