Fiji beat Ireland to go through to semi-final
The pluck of the Irish could not stop Fiji from claiming their first Rugby League World Cup semi-final berth with a 30-14 win at the Gold Coast tonight.
A dogged performance by the Wolfhounds was not enough to hold out flamboyant Fiji who celebrated a bit of history – and a $300,000 winners’ pay cheque.
The beaming Fijian smiles that lit up Skilled Park could not be erased by the sobering thought of taking on world champions Australia at Sydney on Sunday.
Fiji clearly revelled in their biggest achievement since receiving full international status in 1995.
Their massive pay cheque – $225,000 more than Ireland receives – will be a huge boost for Fiji where rugby league has been active for 16 years but has never threatened rugby union in popularity.
A World Cup semi-final appearance is not a bad effort from a team boasting five park footballers and several fringe NRL players.
But there was plenty of kudos also for Ireland which held Fiji to 12-10 at halftime before pure weight of possession – and some trademark Bati brilliance – took their toll.
Ireland received a not so subtle reminder that they were minnows when they flew out to their second World Cup in cattle class – with England travelling in business on the same flight.
But the Wolfhounds have showed plenty of bite Down Under, pressuring the world body to include Ireland in a northern hemisphere tournament next year also boasting Australia, New Zealand and England.
However, the Blarney Army had little to cheer about amongst the disappointing 8,224-strong crowd in the second half tonight after Fiji scored three unanswered tries.
After holding on to the halftime lead despite a late try by Ireland skipper Scott Grix, Fiji poured on the pressure, at one stage enjoying four straight sets of six.
Something had to give and lock Jason Bakuya (55th minute) and Jarryd Hayne (66th) crossed before wing sensation Akuila Uate bagged his second in the 76th.
Not to be outdone, Ireland winger Damien Blanch capped a sensational tournament by crossing for his second of the night – and fifth of the tournament – with a minute left on the clock.
Former Penrith lower grader Blanch is contracted to English club Wakefield but is looking for an NRL offer – he may not have to wait too much longer after his Cup effort.
The England-based Australian became the first Irish player to score a hat-trick at a World Cup in the Wolfhounds’ 22-20 opening round loss to Tonga.
And he added to his show reel when he opened his account tonight.
He dummied and stepped 40m to leave the likes of Parramatta sensation Hayne in his wake to score in the 8th minute and help lock up the scores at 6-6.
Fiji’s plight tonight was not helped by losing prop Iowane Divavesi to a two match ban for tripping just hours before his team ran out against Ireland.
Fiji coach Joe Dakuitoga made the bold call that the win would be enough to boost league’s popularity past rugby union in his country.
“This game was more important to us to win than Ireland. This is a big achievement for Fiji rugby league – all of Fiji are watching us,” he said.
“It is a sport that everyone has always looked down on (at home). I think after this World Cup that league will be the No.1 game in Fiji.”
He also vowed that the players would benefit from their $300,000 windfall.
“It will go to the players. There is no money in Fijian rugby league. We asked these players to play so for them to put their hands up and come this far – we want to share the money with the players,” he said.
He said Fiji’s preparation for Mission Impossible – taking on Australia – would start from tonight.
They will need all the preparation they can get.
Fiji – which has never emerged from the group stage at their previous two World Cups – lost to Australia 66-8 at Gateshead in 2000 and 66-0 at Huddersfield in 1995.
“We are not going into the game with the mindset of losing, we would be stupid if we did,” Fiji captain Wes Naiqama said.
“We know what Australia has to offer but we will go in confident.”
The semi-final sets up an intriguing clash for Fijian fullback Hayne who played for Australia in 2007.
Hayne said he would be fine to play the massive game despite collecting an upright on the way to scoring in the 66th minute.
Meanwhile, Ireland coach Andy Kelly said he was proud of how his side had progressed but admitted he didn’t know when their next game would be.
But he vowed the Wolfhounds would be bigger and better at the proposed 2013 World Cup.
“After the journey we had I still sit here proud of the guys,” he said.© AAP 2013
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