A record-breaking crowd of almost 9,000 people packed into Spotland to see Akuila Uate complete a memorable hat-trick as Fiji flew to the top of Rugby League World Cup Group A.
The Batis were too strong when it mattered against an Ireland side which rarely seemed able to rise to the heights they enjoyed in the World Cup Down Under in 2008.
After the Pacific islanders’ devastating start, which threatened to take the game away from them, Ireland responded strongly until Fiji found a second gear to pull away, thanks mainly to Uate’s three scores.
Rochdale’s first-ever World Cup fixture – in any sport – ensured an official sell out at Spotland Stadium, with a large portion of the crowd filled by passionate Fijians, whose vociferous backing of their side set in motion the tone of the night’s match.
Fiji’s starting 13 featured three brothers in Ashton, Tariq and Korbin Sims, though it was another pair of Bati siblings – Kevin and Waisale Ligani Naiqama – who really set their nation’s RLWC2013 campaign in motion.
Ireland just about made it through a savage first set as Fiji instantly imparted pressure on their opponents, who were saved early on by some loose Fijian handling in greasy conditions created by heavy rain over the preceding 24 hours.
Fiji soon adapted, however, scoring the first try after 10 minutes following a slick passing move that spanned the width of the field. Full-back Kevin Naiqama offloaded to Uate, who touched down in the corner.
Just two-and-a-half minutes later Fiji scored their second: this time Naiqama turned try-scorer as the Bati benefitted from a lucky deflection with James Storer’s kick hitting a green shirt and falling to Aaron Groom, who simply laid off Kevin Naiqama to dance through Ireland’s defence.
Kevin Naiqama was the epitome of the Fijian game in the first 15 minutes, as he intercepted with Ireland enjoying some rare territory, making 40 metres as the Bati were unlucky not to score a third try in quick succession – the Irish defence this time stood firm, holding aloft a number of Bati shirts to prevent the ball being grounding.
When Ireland were finally able to spend some time deep in Fijian territory, they met one of the most aggressive defences that RLWC2013 is likely to see. Time and again white shirts flew into the Irish attackers, resulting eventually in referee Phil Bentham issuing Fiji a full team warning, such was their ferocity in the tackle.
Ireland eventually got their just reward for persevering as Tyrone McCarthy finished a drawn-out move in the corner for the Wolfhounds, who showed their Fijian counterparts that they too can dish out a physical game.
The electric atmosphere inside Spotland was feeding off a high-voltage display on the field, as both sides put their all into a tie from which the winners would be in pole position to qualify from Group A.
Eloni Vunakece’s high tackle on Rory Kostjasyn earned him 10 minutes in the sin-bin just before half-time but Ireland could not capitalise, despite their man advantage.
As half-time came and went so did another heavy downpour, re-slickening the surface. Fiji ditched the delicate handling which featured in their attacks during the first period for an all-out bulldozing approach, which paid dividends instantly as Tariq Sims claimed a scrappy try.
Fiji’s fourth was much easier on the eye. Uate finished in the corner again to round off a move that mirrored his side’s first score, a lovely sweeping sequence from left to right.
Korbin Sims added the fifth Fijian try not long after, the Newcastle Knights prop out-jumping Ireland’s defence to pluck the ball from the rainy night sky and touch down.
There was still time for Uate to grab his hat-trick, the Newcastle Knights winger again finished a move in the right corner as the teams started to tire after a brutal match.
Ireland, to their credit, finished with a flurry of tries as Damien Blanch first reduced the gap by latching on to Scott Grix’s deflected kick before James Hasson squeezed through for a touchdown in the game’s last play.
Fiji play Australia next up at Langtree Park, St Helens, on Saturday, the same day that Ireland face England at an already-sold out John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield.
Whether each side will have available their full cohort is debateable. A number of ugly clashes between the teams will be considered by an International Match Review Panel on Tuesday morning.
Sisa Ledua Waqa
Waisale Ligani Naiqama
Vitale Junior Roqica
Referee: Phil Bentham (England).
Fiji 32 (Tries: Uate (3), Kevin Naiqama, Tariq Sims, Korbin Sims; Goals: Waisale Ligani Naiqama (4), Ireland 14 (Tries: McCarthy, Blanch, James Hasson; goals: Pat Richards
Fiji 32, Ireland 14
By Joe Smith
At Spotland Stadium