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Fiji defeat Italy to book finals spot

By Eden Richards, NRL.com

Tui Kamikamica RLWC Italy v Fiji

The Fiji Bati booked a spot in the Rugby League World Cup quarter-finals following a hard-fought 38-10 victory over Italy at Canberra Stadium last (Friday) night. 

The two nations had never met before this game and they made up for lost time, producing a match that had everything a rugby league fan could ask for. 

Breathtaking tries, wonderful individual performances, huge hits and three controversial sin-bins were just some of the highlights of the fiery clash that for a long time was a lot closer than the scoreboard suggests. 

Needing to win by 46 to progress to the quarter-finals, it was always going to be a tough ask for Italy and they did not help their cause in the early stages.  

‌Trailing 12-4 at halftime, Italy simply had to be the first to score in the second half and they did so in spectacular fashion, scoring the try of the tournament in the 42nd minute.

Mark Minichiello started the play in his own half, offloading to Mason Cerruto who kicked the poor pass forward and regathered the ball.

Cerruto then threw a wild inside ball to Nathan Milone 40m out from the try line, with Milone punting the ball at full force to send it high into the sky.

The ball landed at the try line, bouncing over Fiji winger Marcelo Montoya's head, and Milone then regathered and crossed under the black dot to cut the Bati's lead to two.

But just as it seemed that Italy would hit the lead, Fiji steadied, with second-rower Brayden Williame breaking through to score in the 54th minute. Apisai Koroisau could not convert, leaving the Bati up by one converted try. 

Fiji extended their lead in the 60th minute when winger Suliasi Vunivalu darted from dummy half and ran 65m to score. Koroisau added the extras to give the Bati a 22-10 lead.

Vunivalu scored his second minutes later, diving on top of a Taane Milne soccer kick to put the game to bed. Milne then showed he could do it all with the boot, converting from the sideline to give his side an 18-point lead with 15 minutes to play. 

With the commentators still talking about his previous effort, Vunivalu made it three tries in eight minutes, streaking down the sideline to put Fiji up by 24 and take his individual try-scoring tally to eight for the tournament.  

The margin hit 28 when Montoya crossed in the corner with five minutes to go and that is how it stayed, with Fiji running out 38-10 winners in an entertaining match-up. 

It may have been a blowout win, but the Bati's dominant second-half performance was a far cry from their disappointing first 40 minutes.  

With so much on the line, Fiji understandably started the match nervously, struggling to hold on to the ball and lacking the composure that had seen them start the tournament undefeated.

It took a 55m run from Montoya to settle Fiji's nerves, and if it was not for Italian five-eighth James Tedesco's try-saving tackle, Montoya would have opened the scoring. 

All of Tedesco's hard work was undone seconds later when second-rower Jayden Walker flopped on Montoya in an attempt to slow down the play the ball.  The 21-year-old was penalised for his professional foul and sin-binned, reducing his side to 12 men after 12 minutes.

Vunivalu almost made Italy pay immediately, but his try was disallowed for an obstruction in the lead-up. 

Italy then marched their way down the field, and the class and experience of veteran Terry Campese shone through, with the 33-year-old throwing a beautiful long ball to put Josh Mantellato over in the corner and give the Azzurri a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes.

The Bati hit back eight minutes later, with captain Kevin Naiqama the beneficiary of a fortuitous Jarryd Hayne kick that bounced passed Italian fullback Cerruto and into Naiqama's hands for a four-pointer. Koroisau converted successfully to give his side a 6-4 lead. 

The game escalated in the 34th minute when Italian hooker Joe Tramontana threw a punch on a prone Vunivalu that resulted in an all-in melee. Tramontana was sent to the sin-bin for the punch and Hayne was also sin-binned for running in and escalating the melee.

Such an explosive first half was always going to end with some sort of highlight and Bati halfback Henry Raiwalui provided it, dummying from close range to score under the posts on the stroke of half-time. Koroisau kicked truly to give Fiji a 12-4 lead heading into the break.  

Fiji 38 (Suliasi Vunivalu 3, Kevin Naiqama, Henry Raiwalui, Brayden Williame, Marcelo Montoya tries; Apisai Koroisau 3, Taane Milne 2 goals) defeated Italy 10 (Josh Mantellato, Nathan Milone tries; Josh Mantellato goal) at Canberra Stadium. 
Halftime: Fiji 12-4. Crowd: 6733. 

*This first appeared on NRL.com