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Flying Fijians hit Tonga with three early tries and outlast spirited comeback

By Ned Lester
(Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

Lautoka has proven a tough venue to visit during the Fijian Drua’s 2023 season and the Fiji Test team did their best to continue forging that fortress with a 36-20 win over Ikale Tahi in the opening match of the 2023 Pacific Nations Cup.


A superb debut from Caleb Muntz set his spectacular outsides away for some classic Flying Fiji rugby en route to keeping their win streak alive against Tonga. It was fast and physical from the outset, the ball touching each team’s 22 in the opening minute with hard running and a typically free-flowing attack.

It was Fiji who made the first few breaks of the game and looked more disciplined in the early stages. Josua Tuisova won the collision battle in his first two hit-ups against his opposite number, former All Black Malakai Fekitoa.

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The territory that Fiji’s backs won was then capitalised on by their forwards, who put down a strong lineout rolling maul which the Tongan team struggled to contain, ultimately slipping in their discipline and conceding a penalty try in addition to a yellow card to blindside flanker Tanginoa Halaifonua.

That was all it took for the Fijians to find their form, swift distribution from debutant fly-half Muntz put the dangerous midfield in motion. Captain Waisea Nayacalevu was in dangerous form, leading his side to their second try which was brilliantly celebrated by Selestino Ravutaumada who dived on the tryline in unison with his captain.


Before Tonga could catch their breath, the Fijians were back down their end of the field and threatening again. A strong contestable kicking game from Frank Lomani and ill-discipline from Tonga at the breakdown put the Fijians in another position to score, again off a driving maul. The converted try pushed the lead to 19-0 with just 12 minutes played.

The Fijians were wise and efficient with their work around the breakdown but let themselves down with a lack of execution around other set-piece areas. A dropped ball off the restart was followed by two failed attempts to contain Tonga’s rolling maul and ‘Ikale Tahi capitalised to get their first points on the board.


Fijian discipline slipped further after the Tonga try and ‘Ikale Tahi found their rhythm on attack, operating in well-formed pods that secured fast ball for Sonatane Takulua to play with. Physical hit-ups continued the momentum before Leva Fifita crashed over with an opportunistic pick and go from just a metre out.

A 12-19 score to Fiji after 20 minutes reflected the back-and-forth contest that had unfolded with plenty of action in the opening quarter. With these opening jitters now out of the way, the teams then wrestled for momentum and territory.

The breakdown dictated field position as both sides were guilty of illegal contests as well as successful attempts that stole possession. The result was a stalemate throughout the second quarter of the match before more dangerous running from Tuisova broke the Tongan defence after the half-time siren to put his team ahead 26-15 at the break.

With the sun now at their backs, Tonga went to the air in the second half and Fiji were blinded by the sun when trying to collect Takulua’s bombs. Charles Piutau sparked a scoring opportunity off the back of the territory that the kicking game had gained and Kyren Taumoefolau scored with his first touch of the ball.


The kicking led to more pressure soon after with Takulua deploying more variation to keep the Fijians pinned in their own 22. Quick thinking from Lomani relieved that pressure as the influential half-back stole the ball from a Tonga scrum and a monster kick brought play 90 metres upfield.

Semi Radradra was then injected into the game and he made his presence felt straight away. He took his place in the midfield and flew a ball out to Tuisova on the wing but it dropped at the utility back’s feet. Just minutes later a similar play saw Radradra execute the pass but stoic defence from Afusipa Taumoepeau saw the ball spilled.


Huge hits dominated the game in its final quarter and the ball was spilled numerous times under the Lautoka sun. Muntz extended the lead to 29-20 with ten minutes remaining and Fiji withstood each of Tonga’s final efforts to close in on that lead.

Radradra continued his late onslaught and Tuisova welcomed Patrick Pellegrini to international rugby with a crunching shoulder while in full flight down the wing. Peni Matawalu then had the final say in the match, crashing over the line after another strong Fijian driving maul.


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