NRC Round 6: Resurgent Drua too hot for Rams to handle

Photo: Red Bandana/Karen Watson

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The Fijian Drua rubber-stamped their finals credentials with an impressive 57-31 win over Greater Sydney Rams at TG Millner Field last Saturday. Stung by the heavy loss in Canberra the week before, the visitors simply blew away a game that was in the balance at 31-all as it entered the final quarter, crossing four times without reply to cement their place in the top four, and get their hands on the Horan-Little Shield for the first time in the process.

The final scoreline was a touch harsh on a Rams side shorn of key figures in Jed Holloway, Taqele Naiyaravoro and Mack Mason, and that had fought hard for the full 80 minutes and gone toe-to-toe in the try-scoring stakes before succumbing to their opponent’s final flurry. But the pace, power, desire, aggression, execution and fitness levels from the Fijians was simply too much in the end, and off the back of a 22-point haul from fullback Apisalome Waqatubu, they ran out deserved winners.

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The visitor’s showed their intent right from the off, tapping a penalty in the 2nd minute and building nine phases before a loose pass allowed the Rams to contest and clear. And given their renowned prowess when countering from deep, it was odd to see the home side kick ball away three times in the early exchanges, straight into the arms of a grateful Drua back who duly returned with interest.

Fullback Waqatubu came closest to punishing them, an awkward bounce cruelling his attempts to regather a chip over the top with the Rams line scattered. But they didn’t learn their lesson, and another kick straight down the throat from Cam Bailey allowed flyhalf Alifereti Veitokani to open up his right hand side. A barnstorming run from Apete Daveta was ended by a superb tackle from Stu Dunbar, only for Daveta to offload to Joeli Veitayaki Jr as he fell, and the loosehead gratefully cantered home for the opener.

Having enjoyed almost 65% possession and 81% territory before they made the breakthrough, the Drua weren’t about to take their foot off the Rams throat now they had edged ahead. And from their next visit into the opposition half, captain John Stewart pointed to the posts when awarded a penalty for a high shot, and Waqatubu obliged for a 10-0 advantage.

Apete Davita_Fijian Drua v Rams_2017 NRC_KW

Apete Daveta was a handful all afternoon for the Drua – Photo: Red Bandana/Karen Watson

The Rams needed a shot in the arm, and it was their own skipper, Hugh Roach, who provided it on 22 minutes. Throwing in at a five-metre lineout after the Drua had been pinged for not rolling away, it was the Waratahs hooker who got involved again when the ensuing driving maul was brought to a halt. One scoop, hit and spin and outstretched arm later – and the thumbs-up from the TMO – and Jai Ayoub was adding the extras to make it 10-7.

It proved to be the spark the home side needed. Driving a potent maul through Albert Tuisue shortly after the restart, the backline took over to shift it to the other flank. Dunbar took advantage of a giant hole in the Drua midfield before finding Bailey on his outside, and the rangy Manly utility stepped back inside and dragged three Fijian tacklers with him over the line.

But you can’t keep a good man down for long, and after a crazy two minute passage of play when both sides countered at will with ball in hand, Drua scrumhalf Seru Cavuilati caught the Rams defence napping, taking a quick tap from a late-hit penalty and putting his captain Stewart through a hole and away to the posts for the visitor’s third.

They had a fourth on 34 minutes, a pass to the floor from Rams no.9 Waldo Wessels leaving his halves partner Ayoub all at sea, and when Apete Daveta kicked the loose ball ahead and regathered with open field ahead of him, he was always the favourite to win the foot race to the line.

But the Rams didn’t buckle, and enjoying their best period of the game despite the concession of the quickfire-double, they worked themselves within range just before the break. A sustained passage of pressure saw the forwards doing the hard yards with a host of pick-and-go’s up the middle, before the opportunity was spotted out wide and Ayoub fired an inch-perfect bullet for Ben Cotton to go over in the corner.

A terrific sideline conversion from the Eastwood pivot left his side trailing 24-21 at oranges, and it was the home team who clicked into gear first after the resumption of hostilities. Just two minutes were on the second half clock when a bounce pass from Jed Gillespie was snaffled up by Hugh Roach, who carved a path through the Fijian line before finding Tuisue in support. The industrious no.8 held off a couple and put a one-handed offload on a plate for Stu Dunbar to put the home side back in front.

Dennis Pili-Gaitau_Rams v Fijian Drua_2017 NRC_SG

Dennis Pili-Gaitau was one of the Rams best – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

Another score at this point for the Rams would have been an interesting test of the Drua’s resolve. But instead, they opened the door for them to return serve in typical style.

History tells us that if you’re clearing a kick against these guys, you have to find plenty of grass or Row Z of the grandstand. Because if you don’t, as happened in the 51st minute, they take a quick throw and run it back hard and fast, and their ability to reach top speed over a short distance, power through the tackle, offload off either hand from any angle and always with a man in support, is very hard to stop. As a result, Daveta went in for his second.

The Rams dusted themselves off and duly hit back from their next visit to the Drua 22. A lineout was shepherded infield and trucked up by the forwards, before Ayoub fired it out to Dennis Pili-Gaitau. The Manly centre had been one of the Rams best to that point with his combative carrying, and it was another incendiary surge, all leg drive and upper-body strength, that saw him smash through three Fijian jerseys and stretch for the chalk.

31-all then as we entered the final quarter, and the noisy TG Millner crowd were strapping themselves in for a helter-skelter finale. But any hope from the Rams that their opponents may finally began to tire and lose some of the edge off their aggression and attacking intent were forlorn. What they encountered instead, was a Drua team about to find another level.

Points-machine Waqatubu got the ball rolling. A lovely pop-pass from Alifereti Veitokani found a terrific line from skipper Stewart, and the Fijian international didn’t waste the space he created, racing away before fixing the last man and feeding Waqatubu on his inside for the line.

Apisalome Waqatabu_Fijian Drua v Rams_2017 NRC_KW

Apisalome Waqatubu claimed a 22pt haul for the visitors – Photo: Red Bandana/Karen Watson

Eroni Sau was next in, taking a pass from Waqatubu before stepping Dunbar and forcing a path through Jed Gillespie and Ben Cotton to get himself on the scoresheet. And if the Rams had struggled to contain the 15 Fijians that started the game, the replacements proved to be just as hard to hold, Kitione Taliga going 50 metres down the touchline and putting Frank Lomani away for their seventh try of the afternoon.

Having to play catch-up footy is a risk-reward scenario at the best of times, but against this Drua side, it is akin to a tightrope walk over a waiting pool of sharks – one slip and they’ll tear you apart. And so it was when the result was confirmed in the 75th minute, Stu Dunbar’s looping pass picked off by Veitokani, and he had Taliga on his outside for a run to the corner to cement the biggest win of their short history, and ensure that the Horan-Little Shield headed back to Fiji in their grasp.

With two home games to finish the regular season, it’s hard to see anyone taking it back off them, or the Drua finishing outside the top four in the process. No-one will fancy meeting them in the semis, despite the ARU’s stipulation that they must play outside of Fiji should they go on to achieve finals football.

The Rams meanwhile must lick their wounds and go again. They weren’t that far off on the day, indeed, the final scoreline paints a harsher picture than their performance warranted. With a few significant bodies to return next week, they have the chance to keep their season alive with a win over the high-flying Queensland Country. They have no choice now.

FIJIAN DRUA 57 (Apete Daveta 2, Joeli Veitayaki Jr., John Stewart, Apisalome Waqatubu, Eroni Sau, Frank Lomani, Kitione Taliga tries; Apisalome Waqatubu 7 cons, pen) defeated GREATER SYDNEY RAMS 31 (Hugh Roach, Cam Bailey, Ben Cotton, Stu Dunbar, Dennis Pili-Gaitau tries; Jai Ayoub 3 cons) HT 24-21

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