A late try from Mikhailo Troyan ensured that Ukraine remain undefeated at this level after seven matches, fending off a late challenge from Malta to win 34-22.
Troyan had been sin-binned just after the hour for a high tackle on Jake Attard and in his absence the galvanised Knights crossed twice, through Joseph Pio Mizzi and outstanding Nathan Falzon, to cut the deficit to eight points.
But as Troyan prepared to come back, and with the visitors out of substitutes in 31-degree heat, winger Anatolii Grankovskiy’s clearing run and Falzon being called back on an interception for being offside, saw the visitors hang on, before finally breathing easy with their sixth try on the final play.
In their first game on home soil for almost three years, the hosts fell behind in the seventh minute. Hooker Dmytro Semerenko crossed from close in and Volodimir Mazepa converted. Malta hit straight back though. Falzon, whose runs were a constant threat, found a hole and ghosted through, with Shaun Chircop adding the extras.
More powerful up the middle, the visitors took the lead and control on the half hour. Skipper Skorbach darted over and Andrieichenko Sviatoslav broke clear just before the break, Mazepa’s third goal made it 6-18 as the sides went to cool off.
With a slight breeze accompanying them on their return, Malta made a poor start to the second period, losing possession and conceding a penalty, Skorbach’s fine inside pass sent ever-involved loose forward Oleksandr Scherbina over.
With Malta struggling to make headway, another superb run from Falzon set the position for hooker Jake Attard to snipe over from dummy half. His brother Malcom converted, but the Knights put the restart out on the full. Grankovskiy weaved past three would-be tacklers and Semerenko crossed for his second, Mazepa maintained his perfect record with the boot.
Troyan’s yellow card immediately lifted the home resolve, victim Malcolm Attard stayed on the field as Falzon’s great soft pass sent in Pio Mizzi out wide. Another high tackle gave Malta position and this time Ian Catania sent Falzon between defenders for a deserved score, Malcolm Attard added the goal from an acute angle.
Back up to their full complement for the closing stages, Ukraine kept the ball tight and Troyan ensured victory at the finale.
Ukraine head coach Gennady Veprik said: “It was a difficult game, but our bench really helped us.
“Our experienced players who were among our substitutes really helped us get through.
“Greece will be an even harder game for us even though as it is in Kharkiv, but we have time to prepare, this experience will do us good and, hopefully, we will play even better.”
Malta head coach Sam Blyton-Keep commented: “I can’t criticise the guys, the heart, passion and commitment they showed was phenomenal, the final scoreline doesn’t reflect their effort.
“Every one of them gave their all and I couldn’t ask for more.
“Nathan [Falzon] and Malcolm [Attard] were outstanding but I’m especially proud of the domestic boys, they’ve done all that could have been asked of them in the last three months and put everything on the line today. We can push on from here against Greece – we’ll give them a fair shot.”
Malta: Nathan Falzon; Jean Pierre Zarb, Jon Jon Micallef, Matt Camilleri (c), Shaun Chircop; Malcom Attard, Aaron Grech; Jeremy Dela, Jake Attard, Vince Farrugia, Ian Catania, Joseph Pio Mizzi, Tyson Freeman. Subs: Jamie Brincat Brockdorff, Nicky Maylor, Ben Naudi, Clive Sciberras.
Ukraine: Bogdan Vepryk; Mikhailo Troyan, Andrieichenko Sviatoslav, Mikhailo Pavliv, Anatolii Grankovskiy; Oleksandr Skorbach, Volodimir Mazepa; Volodimir Radchik, Dmytro Semerenko, Nazar Semion, Oleksandr Sivokoz, Yevhen Trusov, Oleksandr Scherbina. Subs: Volodimir Karpenko, Igor Iurkin, Ostap Grischenko, Sergii Kravchenko.
Starman: Nathan Falzon (Malta)