New Zealand avoided an almighty World Cup upset after coming back from behind to beat Fiji 24-18 and book their spot in the semi-final.
The Kiwis, who haven’t been to the last four since 2013, were behind for 62 minutes of the match, but were able to mount a sensational comeback to continue their journey through the tournament.
Fiji knew they would need to produce a special performance to deny New Zealand a semi-final spot, and their opening effort was certainly from the top drawer.
The Bati went ahead in the 12th minute with Maika Sivo getting over in the corner. A dummy kick from Apisai Koroisau and a sensational pass from Viliame Kikau allowed the Parramatta Eels man to cross.
New Zealand, who were priced as second-favourites to win the tournament, were stunned and couldn’t find an immediate response.
Instead, it was Fiji who struck for a second time with a stunning effort from captain Kevin Naiqama.
A quick pass from Sunia Turuva allowed the new Huddersfield signing to find a devastating line thought the Kiwi defence. Brandon Wakeham strengthened Fiji’s lead with his second conversion to make it 12-0.
New Zealand were sensationally beaten 4-2 by Fiji in the quarter-final of the 2017 World Cup and a repeat of that upset was now firmly on the cards.
Despite the pressure situation, the Kiwis quickly fought back just before the half-hour mark. New Zealand were able to execute a training ground gameplay from the scrum as their wave of attack down the left culminated with Ronaldo Mulitalo getting over the whitewash.
Fiji held on to their lead for the second half and went about causing further damage after the restart.
Kevin Naiqama shows his class
Just three minutes in, Naiqama showed his class again. The former St Helens man picked up the ball from dummy half 22 metres out and showed a brilliant burst of speed to bewilder the Kiwi defence. After dummying a pass to Vuate Karawalevu the 33-year-old powered over the whitewash.
Wakeham’s touchline conversion made it 18-6 with just over 35 minutes remaining. Despite this, the Kiwis simply refused to throw in the towel.
Their first reply came just moments after Fiji’s second half breakthrough. Briton Nikora crashed over after Semi Valemei bizarrely released the player from his tackle, just a couple of metres away from the try-line.
Kiwis pile on the pressure
New Zealand began to turn up the heat. Their pressure eventually reaped rewards with Joseph Manu getting over the whitewash.
The full-back capitalised on a sterling run from Mulitalo while a successful kick from Jordan Rapana levelled the score with 17 minutes remaining.
The Kiwis continues to press though their next breakthrough certainly came in controversial circumstances. Kikau was judged to have stripped the ball from Manu by the video referee – overturning the match official’s original call of a double knock on.
New Zealand were ultimately awarded a penalty 40 metre out and Rapana kept his cool to move the Kiwi’s ahead for the first time in the match.
Fiji were unable to overturn the slender deficit in the closing stages, as New Zealand added another try to the board with Rapana going over.
New Zealand: Manu; Rapana, Hiku, Nicoll-Klokstad, Mulitalo; Brown, Hughes; J Bromwich, Smith, Fisher-Harris, K Bromwich, Asofa-Solomona, Tapine. Subs: Papali’i, Foran, Nikora, Liu.
Tries: Mulitalo, Nikora, Manu, Rapana Goals: Rapana 4
Fiji: Turuva; Karawalevu, Naiqama, Valemei, Sivo; Koroisau, Wakeham; Sims, Tagituimua, Kamikamica, Wong, Kikau, Sadrugu. Subs: Raiwalui, Manuel-Liolevave, Nakubuwai, Vuniyayawa.
Tries: Sivo, Naiqama (2) Goals: Wakeham 3