In what was one of the best matches of the NRC this year, the Fiji Drua finally broke their away losing streak when they defeated a brave Sydney Rays outfit in front of a big crowd at Concord Oval.
The Rays were in control for most of the match, but a incredible fightback spearheaded by Apisalome Waqatabu in the final quarter saw the away team snatch victory in the final five minutes.
Starting with the visitors, the Drua were coming into this game as red hot favourites. With two big wins at home, they crashed out heavily the week before, getting smacked by last years champions Queensland Country in Mackay. However, with delegates from World Rugby watching on in the corporate box and a loud and passionate Fijian community supporting them, the Drua looked only more confident to grab their first away win since defeating the Greater Sydney Rams last year.
Coming into this game, the Rays were in a bad place. Languishing at the bottom of the ladder without a win, and having lost their first three home games, a loss here would effectively see the Rays chances of winning the Toast Rack disappear for another year. With Rob Simmons heading overseas and the likes of stars like Cam Clark and Pama Fou injured, things were not looking good. Add to that, Reg had predicted they’d be flogged by 60 or more. Honestly, everyone was expecting this to be a demolition.
And so, David and Goliath clashed.
A fantastic crowd of around 3,500 turned out to watch, and if there was any indication that the match was going to be a one sided affair, that all ended in the first ten minutes.
The Rays, pissed at the tough preview Reg had written about them on Friday, immediately put pressure on the Drua through rushing defence, shutting down the Fijians space. It was clear they had done their homework, and with nowhere to go, the Fijians discipline got the better of them, and they started to give away penalties. A combined effort for the Rays forward pack saw Connor Vest crash over for the first try. Harry Burey was unable to convert due to the strong winds and the Rays were up 5-0.
In the 13th minute, the Rays snuck in again off the back of their forward pack, with Tyson Davis being the recipient of a crisp pass that he finished well. Discipline was proving a major stumbling block for the Drua, as the Rays starved them of possession and forced mistakes with rushing defence. Burey converted, and the Rays were up by 12.
While many in the stands were thinking it was only a matter of time before the Drua clicked into gear, every time they tried to control the game, the Rays would shut them down and pin them in their own half. When the Rays scored their third in the 28th minute through Curtis Rona, it became clear things weren’t going to go to script this afternoon.
The Drua finally were able to get some possession in the final ten minutes of the half, and while their first few ventures into enemy territory were thwarted by the Rays rushing defence, when they got a sniff, they pounced. An outstanding cut out pass saw Alifereti Veitokani thread the needle and score in the corner. Both sides traded blows afterwards until halftime, with the game comprehensively in the home teams’ favour.
Halftime: Sydney Rays 19 – 5 Fijian Drua
The Rays continued their dominance in the early stages of the second half, pounding the Drua line. When Apete Daveta was shown the cheese in the 42nd minute for a deliberate knockdown, the home side set a solid foundation with their forward pack, and Nick Duffy combined to put Robaleibau Buaserau away in the corner. Burey failed to convert and the Rays were up 24-5.
The match then sank into a war of attrition. Cyril Reece pounced on an opportunity for the Drua in the 50th minute to cut the margin back to two converted tries, but both sides struggled to gain the ascendancy. The Drua were finally able to get some ball, but time and time again the Rays were able to push the opposition back. Particular mention should go to the fullback Tim Clements, who was putting in a gutsy defensive performance to keep the Drua at bay. As the substitutes came on for the Drua, one bloke by the name of Apisalome Waqatabu would be the one to break the deadlock.
As the sixtieth minute approached, the Drua finally began to show their ascendancy, and a small lapse by the Rays saw the backline pounce and Waqatabu score in the corner. With margin now less than ten points, the Drua’s tales were up, and they went in for the kill. The bench was emptied and immediately proved effective, with another try coming in the 65th minute to Albert Tuisue, cutting the margin to four, 24-20. With conversions difficult to come by, every point counted. But the Rays were still ahead, and clinging desperately to their lead.
Reverting back to their rushing defence, the Rays began to push the Drua back up the field and against the odds, looked to have shut down the Fijians space. It took a bit of outstanding long-range brilliance from the Drua to finally break the Rays in 75th minute, when Jone Manu made use of their rushing defence to put a small kick through. Daveta and Veitokani combined brilliantly in backplay to put Veitokani under the sticks. Waqatabu grabbed the conversion, and the Drua were ahead for the first time all game, 24-27.
In the 77th minute, Waqatabu proved to finally seal the result, when he provided a beautiful pass to put Daveta in space. The Fijians combined well and Waqatabu was the beneficiary to score one last try and give the Drua some much needed breathing space, 24-34.
However, after spending close to two-thirds of the half defending, the Rays were to have the last laugh when Curtis Rona scored his second try after the bell off the back of a well-weighted kick from Harry Burey. Burey slotted the conversion, giving his team a losing bonus point and ending an absolutely outstanding game of footy.
Fulltime Score: Sydney Rays 31 – 34 Fijian Drua
This was a brave, brave performance by the Rays, with every player on the paddock putting their hand up. After weeks of being outgunned and outplayed, they came out and played out of their skins for the whole game. They brought an excellent game plan to the fore, and in doing so, came close to pulling off what would have been a famous victory. It was a true testament to the team that, coming up against such a dangerous team in the Drua, that they were able to hold them out for so long. Alas, they still lost, and with it, realistically their only chance of making the finals. With four losses at home, this marks the first time in their history that the Rays also will go through an entire season not winning a single home game. They’ll head across the Nullarbor to face the Western Force next week.
By comparison, this was an outstanding come-from-behind win by the Drua, but one that showcased what can happen when they are outplayed by a well-orchestrated game plan. For the majority of this match, the Drua struggled and looked occasionally sloppy, with their issues with discipline rearing it’s ugly head again. If it wasn’t for their outstanding bench, the game might have gone another way. However, the team rallied extremely well in final thirty minutes of the game, and grabbed an important win in their campaign. One more win, and they’ll all but be guaranteed a run into the finals. They return home to face the NSW Country Eagles next week.
The Game Changer
In the period of the fiftieth to seventieth minutes, the teams were locked in a fascinating armwrestle. While the score was 24-5, all of us knew that the Drua could close that gap in instant. If the Rays had scored to go past thirty, it probably would have given them a mental edge to bring it home. Alas, Waqatabu showed his class, and it was the Drua who won the armwrestle.
The GAGR MOTM
With two tries and two conversions, the points Apisalome Waqatabu scored was probably the least impactful part of his performance. Until he came on, the Drua’s backline was getting shut down by the Rays. He provided the spark of energy they needed, and one that enabled them to come from behind and win.
Rising Star Watch
Ohhh, where to start?! So many players put their hands up in this game. On the Drua side, Alivereti Veitokani had an absolutely blinder at fullback and grabbed a double for his trouble, while Mosese Voka was probably the best forward on park, bringing a lot of mongrel and go-forward to the Drua pack. For the Rays, Tim Clements was phenomenal at fullback, helping in the buildup to a few of the Rays tries and putting in a courageous defensive effort, while Harry Burey was also put in a great performance as the Rays playmaker. He looks to have a bright future ahead of him and was instrumental in keeping a lid on the Drua for most of the game.
Crowd: Around 3,500
Sydney Rays 31
Tries: Rona (2), Vest, Davis, Buaserau
Cons: Burey 3/5
Fijian Drua 34
Tries: Waqatabu (2), Veitokani (2), Reece, Tuisue
Cons: Vularika 0/2, Waqatabu 2/4
Cards: Daveta (Yellow, 42)