Skipper Ryan Lonergan and his Australia A side upset Fiji 32-18 in steamy Lautoka today in a fine bounce back in the Pacific Nations Cup.
The A team entered the match with a far more switched-on game plan compared to their careless, error-prone 31-26 loss to Samoa a week earlier.
The leg-driving runs of No.8 Langi Gleeson, the hustle of flanker Fraser McReight, try-scoring winger Dylan Pietsch and halfback Lonergan’s crisp pass, goalkicker and directing of play were all standout features.
Australia A’s own trio of Fiji-raised trumps, Gleeson, Filipo Daugunu and Seru Uru, all excelled in a match of great meaning for them.
It was a victory of significance over a strong flying Fijians side laced with quality players including former All Black centre Seta Tamanivalu and wing dynamos Josua Tuisova and Vinaya Habosi.
“The progress in just a week was very positive. We fronted up as we had to because we know Fiji are a very physical side,” Lonergan said.
“We managed the game quite well.”
In the opening 20 minutes, Lonergan directed attacks to the short side which limited the risk of a costly turnover out wide.
The Fijian line-up was a far superior to that fielded by Samoa and the Australians stepped up their performance accordingly.
The Australians still had to be alert at every step with McReight making two good early tackles to prevent dangerous backs Manasa Mataele and Habosi from making extra metres.
Gleeson had an excellent first half with the metres he gained post-contact under his distinctive red headgear.
He missed a lineout take but was on the spot in the same play to swoop when the Fijians spilt the ball after 11 minutes. He dashed 25m before being brought down. Lonergan made sure the Australians were ruthless when, from the ensuing ruck, he directed a pass to the short side for lock Sinclair to crash over.
The Fijians have been worthy beneficiaries of World Rugby’s revised eligibility rules which has meant former All Blacks like centreTamanivalu are now available for their country of birth.
Tamanivalu closed Australia A’s early 10-3 lead with a trademark try midway through the first half. His piston-like fend sat fullback Jock Campbell on his shorts in a strong run to the tryline.
A muffed kick-off reception by the Fijians let the Aussies back in immediately. Gleeson and lock Ryan Smith made good charges to set up a platform for the ball to be spun to the left. Flyhalf Ben Donaldson took it to the line, threaded his body through the defence and slipped a try-making ball to winger Dylan Pietsch.
Australia A’s 15-8 lead was nibbled away so that it was game on at 15-13 at half-time.
Striking first after half-time was vital and the busy McReight off-loaded to prop Matt Gibbon close to the line. Winger Daugunu was looking for work and was at the ruckbase for a quick pick-and-go try.
Daugunu was all smiles. When he landed at Brisbane Airport in thongs before the 2017 season to play club rugby in Brisbane, he was unsure where the rugby road would take him after being a prison warden in Fiji.
His homecoming as a Wallaby in the Australian A side was full of merit once he shook off his one blemish when dangerman Habosi ran around him in the fifth minute.
He won a penalty when he got hands on Fijian ball at a tackle, he made several key tackles and his few gallops were with conviction.
The Australia A scrum had a few unstable moments but the lineout was far more reliable than this facet of Fijian play. The 16 penalties conceded by Jason Gilmore's team will be a work-on for the coach because discipline was poor against Samoa too.
Skipper Lonergan’s goalkicking was vital. He knocked over the conversion of Daugunu’s try for 22-13 and five-from-six for the game to always be adding to Australia A’s buffer.
Again, the Fijians struck back for 22-18 before the Australians took charge over the final 20 minutes.
Lock Jeremy Williams, only called into the squad this week, had not been long on the field when he charged down a kick by Fiji’s replacement flyhalf Ben Volavola.
He collected the loose ball himself for the score and a 29-18 lead. One final Lonergan penalty goal stretched the score to 32-18.
The Fijians will curse their poor handling and general errors but they are well capable of knocking off Samoa next Saturday.
If they do, a healthy victory by Australia A over Tonga the same day could deliver the Pacific Nations Cup to the Aussies.
Australia A 32 (H Sinclair, D Pietsch, F Daugunu, J Williams tries; R Lonergan 3 con, 2 pen goal) beat Fiji 18 (S Tamanivula, L Botia, A Ratuniyarawa tries; T Tela pen goal)