The New Zealand Māori rugby team have lost for just the second time in the past 16 years, outclassed by Fiji in Suva on Saturday in the first match of their two-game series.
Billed as a chance for some of those overlooked for the All Blacks squad to prove something of a point, it instead turned into a fixture to forget for the visitors, as an energised and spirited home side put them away 27-10 at ANZ Stadium, for their first win over them in 62 years.
The teams had met 29 times previously, with the Māori winning 20 of those and Fiji seven, along with two draws. However, Fiji’s last success wasn’t since 1957 – 17 games ago.
That all changed thanks to a four-tries-to-two performance, where the hosts dominated proceedings from the outset, produced a whole heap of their trademark offloading flair, and physicality without the ball, building on a 12-0 halftime lead, snuffing out a late fight from the Māori.
Fiji’s last international was their 21-14 upset of France in Paris last November, and they proved worthy of their world ranking of No 9 – a place ahead of Argentina – as they build for their World Cup tilt.
On the other side of the coin, the Māori display was error-ridden and lethargic, missing far too many first-up tackles, and resulted in only their second loss since 2003, having only been tipped up by the British and Irish Lions in between times, two years ago in Rotorua.
Fiji, who have Chiefs assistants Tabai Matson and Neil Barnes among the coaching staff led by John McKee, made all the early running – enjoying over 80 per cent possession and territory in the first quarter.
Initially, they just couldn’t turn that into points. A missed shot at goal from first five-eighth Ben Volavola, coughing up from a close-range lineout and being pinged by referee Damon Murphy when in good positions looked like stunting their progress.
A missed penalty touchfinder looked set to add to their woes, only for it to ironically lead to Fiji’s first try, as they won the ball back at the breakdown and Volavola sent a beautiful ball to debutant fullback Alivereti Veitokani, who darted 25 metres to open the scoring in the 22nd minute.
It looked like the Māori were set to hit back soon after, but a spilled ball ruined those thoughts. The visitors also looked obsessed with kicking ahead instead of taking contact, and many of those kicks were ill-directed.
With another average bit of boot-work – a missed touch from fullback Fletcher Smith – the Fijians were invited into their opponents’ half, and it resulted in a second try, with lock Leone Nakarawa popping a lovely ball for No 8 Viliame Mata to finish in style in the left corner, brushing aside his opposite, Akira Ioane, then bowling over Smith, on a powerful 10-metre burst to the line.
It got worse for the Māori a couple of minutes before halftime, when first-five Otere Black was sin binned for going off his feet at a ruck in front of the posts, after the visitors were left scrambling when a Tom Franklin dropped ball had Fiji openside flanker Semi Kunatani bursting up the park.
But they were let off the hook after the resulting scrum, with Fiji second-five Levani Botia losing the ball over the line in a desperate tackle by Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
Still, the hosts were up 12-0 at the break, with the Māori on the wrong side of a whopping 21-1 missed tackle count.
Probably with a rark up from coach Clayton McMillan ringing in their ears, the Māori soon found themselves in an even bigger hole.
No sooner had Volavola kicked a penalty to put the margin beyond two converted tries, than Fiji were scoring their third try – profiting from a charge down near their own line, which saw Volavola come up with the ball and scoot up the middle, before plenty others got involved and centre Waisea Nayacalevu was on hand to Back to 15 men and desperately needing to get themselves back in the contest, the Māori reserves injected some spark. The visitors built some pressure and after Mitchell Karpik drove close, Alex Nankivell sent a good wide ball for another Chief – Sean Wainui – to open their account in the 54th minute.
With the Māori able to camp in some good positions and Fiji reigning in their game somewhat, a close-range scrum saw Bryn Hall and Black combine to put Wainui over for his second, in the 69th minute, and they had a sniff.
However, Fiji were to, fittingly, have the final say, with yet more offloading brilliance leading to Nayacalevu diving over for a double to seal the deal.
The teams square off again in Rotorua next Saturday night, for what looms as an interesting rematch.
AT A GLANCE
Fiji 27 (Waisea Nayacalevu 2, Alivereti Veitokani, Viliame Mata tries; Ben Volavola 2 con, pen) NZ Māori 10 (Sean Wainui 2 tries) HT: 12-0.