Jade Stadium @ Lancaster Park, Christchurch
Ref: Gary Wise (Hawkes Bay)
Half-time: Canterbury 18 - Fiji 17
Full-time: Fiji 41 - Canterbury 38
A lovely winter afternoon in Christchurch and the RealContacts boys decided that they would just have to relocate their afternoon brainstorming session to occur in the top tier of the West stand at Jade Stadium. And what do you know, Canterbury are playing Fiji at the same time, I hate it when that happens! The great conditions and the promise of an entertaining game had brought out a pretty decent crowd for a weekday, probably around 10,000 I reckon, boosted by the 2500 school kids in the DB draught stand who made more than enough noise for everyone. Of course sitting in the West Stand with the sun behind it and a freezing Easterly blowing in your face wasn't quite the balmy experience we were hoping for, but we sucked it up and did the hard yards with no thought of our own well being. (which also explains why we actually drank DB, man that stuff is crap!) Despite the fact that this was one of those games where there was no real pressure for either side to win there were a number of reasons for the interest in the match. Firstly, anytime you get a chance to watch a Fijian team play you should take it. They are born to entertain and even in the 15 man game you can guarentee that they will get a few chances to show off their flair for running rugby. They are also in the final preparation stages for their RWC campaign and they were definitely hoping to play well against a strong Canterbury outfit. The fact that there were quite a few Fijian players who were familar to the kiwi fan helped too. Vunibaka (CRU), Rabeni and Tuilevu (HGH) all played Super 12 this year and the likes of Nicky Little, Greg Smith, Ape Naevo and big Joe Veitayaki have been around the NZ rugby scene at one time or other. The most noticable absence was Blues super-winger Rupeni CauCaunibuca, who is supposedly lost in Fiji somewhere, a shame that he wasn't playing but his replacement Vilimoni DeLasau is a pretty handy man to have, being one of the standout players in the world sevens scene. Secondly, from a Canterbury and NZ perspective, there was quite a bit of intrigue over the performance of some of the Canterbury players. The Canterbury lineup included current or past All Blacks Ben Blair, Caleb Ralph, Andrew Mehrtens, Scott Robertson, Norm Maxwell and Sam Broomhall. All these guys were looking to show they are worthy of inclusion in the 30 man squad for the RWC, and while a few of them are really unlikely to get in, they all are possibilities. And so on to my synopsis of the match. I think I got all the scoring right but I could be wrong on who scored which tries for Fiji (although I know Rabeni definitely got a hat-trick). The first 20 minutes was all Canty, the only ball that Fiji had was a couple of counter-attack chances and the kickoff/restarts. A penalty to Mehrts opened the scoring and then the first try went to Chris King, who seemed to steal the ball off Ben Hurst on their way over the try line. Mehrts converted. Soon after winger Alisi Tupuailei (who always seems to be a real handful for the opposition defense) busted through a couple of weak tackles to score the second try. Mehrts didn't manage to convert that one but it was still 15-0 after about 15 minutes. Not long after that though the Fijians got some possession, and made it a half of two halves (even Fitzy never used that one I bet!) by dominating the scoring for the last 20 minutes leading into the break. In that period they scored 17 points, two nice converted tries to Rabeni and DeLasau, and a penalty to Nicky Little, which gave them a 17-15 lead. The try to DeLasau was a beauty, with the flying winger getting the ball with space on about half-way and turning Blair inside out before gasing away from Ralph and Blair to score. Right on the stroke of half time Mehrts stole the lead back with a penalty to put Canterbury ahead 18-17 at the break. Canterbury made a couple of subs at the half, taking try-scorer Tupuailei off and bringing on Shaun Webb. Webb went into fullback and Blair moved across to the right wing. I'm guessing this sub could have been to give Blair a chance to play a half on the wing, it certainly wasn't because Tupuailei did anything wrong, he was going great. Norm Maxwell was the other sub, he had a pretty handy first half, using his javalin tackling technique to good effect giving himself just as much punishment as he did the opposition. I don't think his subbing was injury related, more likely just taking it easy coming back from his injury. Early in the second spell Mehrts slotted a penalty to stretch the lead out to 21-17, and it looked like Canterbury might have the game under control again but that was most definitely not the case. Replacement fullback Webb would be the first to agree that things didn't go so well for the home side for the next 15 minutes or so. He was looking for a hole to bury himself in when he was found out as the last, and worst, line of defence on two sucessive Fijian tries, both to hat-trick hero Rabeni. This put Fiji ahead 31-21 with about 25 minutes to go. They were running hot but as we have come to expect from Red and Black sides in recent years the local boys weren't looking despondant, they knew they were still in the game. A determined Canterbury dominated possession for the next next 10 minutes or so and while they couldn't cross the tryline they forced the Fijian defense to give away four very kickable penalties, all of which Mehrts gratefully accepted. As a result with about 15 minutes to go Canterbury hit the front again 33-31. Fiji weren't done yet either. They strung together some great phases of controlled rugby which resulted in a deserved try to home-town hero Vunibaka, who snapped up the ball from the back of a Fijian ruck that was just stopped short of the line and dived over to score. I think that got the biggest cheer of the day, which was great to hear. Little converted to keep up his flawless kicking record and it was 38-31 to Fiji with about 10 min to go. It wasn't over yet though. Canterbury swung back on attack. The Fijian's were pretty happy to infringe at this stage, knowing that 3 points wasn't enough and sure enough Canterbury turned down at least 3 kickable penalties at the time. Instead they opted for lineouts which wasn't the smartest plan given they had really struggled to win good ball since Maxwell went off. Grant, who was watching the game with me, asked why a team who needs to score a try and has just been awarded a penalty about 15 m from the try line, directly in front of the posts, would opt to kick for touch and take a lineout instead of packing down a scrum. I didn't have an answer. The scrum certainly seemed like the best option to me too, you are pretty much guarenteed to win your feed and you can mount a backline move in either direction. If you have a good explanation for this tactic then post it on the board, but seriously it seemed dumb to take the lineout. As we feared Fiji spoiled the lineout ball but luckily Canterbury eventually wound up with a scrum feed back on the same spot, about 15m out from the posts. What a waste of time! Anyway, from the scrum Mehrts and center Casey LauLala put Ben Blair free on the outside and he scooted in at the corner, ducking under a flying cover tackle, to tie the scores at 38-38. Mehrts couldn't quite convert from the sideline and with about 2min left on the clock it looked like a very fitting draw would be the final result. However Nicky Little had other ideas and when Fiji appeared to be mounting one last desperate running attack into the Canterbury 22 Little calmly slotted a dropkick over to take the win for his side 41-38. Both sides should be really happy with their efforts, and I hope this can give Fiji some confidence going into the world cup, if they can combine the composure they showed today with the flair they are always capable of then they will be a handful for any side, especially when you consider this team was below strength. Standouts for the Fijians were obviously Rabeni with his hat-trick and Little with his perfect 7-7 goal kicking. Players who deserve a mention in the Canterbury team were: Chris King. He was doing a good Kees Meeuws impression with the ball in hand and looked to be holding his own in the tight. Ben Hurst, who is really thriving with the captaincy and regular game time. Tupuailei. This guy is a great winger, really strong on his feet and good speed. If you had the entire Canterbury squad to select a starting team from I would have Vunibaka and this guy ahead of Caleb Ralph and Joe Maddock, with Maddock ahead of Ralph I reckon. Ralph had his usual solid game, but didn't impress and his lack of another gear was really obvious, he had a couple of opportunities that the likes of DeLasau, Vunibaka or Rokocoko would have scored from but he just couldn't get away from the defense. Nathan Mauger. Playing at second five Mauger showed his class, making the right decision most of the time and feeding those outside him well. His mid-field partner Laulala could learn a thing or two from him, Laulala has some great skills but he just has to take on the defensive line everytime he gets the ball. On numerous occasions it looked like there was an overlap out wide but he had a go at the line instead of getting the ball to his outsides. Mehrtens. Mehrts had a classic Mehrtens game. His goal kicking was great (he kicked 8-10, 7 penalties, one conversion), his tactical kicking was outstanding (he has the ball on a string), his backline play on attack was very accurate and decisive, and his defense was crap. We all know that Mehrts isn't on the park for his defense and most of the time his "I'll slow the guy down until the cavalry gets here" approach is fine. It was fine today too, certainly not the reason that Fiji scored any of their points, but it wasn't good enough for the current All Black selectors I fear. Personally I would take Mehrts to the RWC and have him on the bench as an insurance policy but I can see why Mitch and Co don't see him as part of their plans. His game is very different to Carlos, Mauger and Carter, sure his goalkicking, tactical kicking and passing are all better than those three guys but the rest of his game (defense and ball running) is no where near as good. If the All Blacks are able to play the style of game that they have in the last month or so then they don't need the extra accuracy Mehrts brings to the game but if plan A comes unstuck it sure would be nice to have a Mehrts to run plan B! Blair. Blair had a solid and accurate game as well. Nothing outstanding but he was safe under the highball, returned the ball well when he ran it back and did everything right to score his try when the pressure was on. Unfortunately for Blair if Leon Macdonald is fit and healthly and Mils keeps up his great form then I don't think he'll be RWC bound this time around, although I'd definitely take him ahead of Caleb!! Broomhall and Robertson had good games but not outstanding, and I can't see them making the RWC squad unless they really pick it up in the NPC. Both guys offer some good positional cover options but probably no better than the guys ahead of them in the running for the squad. I thought Robertson was guilty of trying a bit hard to take on the defense at times instead of taking the best option, which was often to draw and pass. All in all a very enjoyable game of rugby and an excellent hit out for both teams as they build towards the real competitions, the NPC and the RWC.