The dream of playing at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 remains alive for Fijiana after they finished strongly to beat Papua New Guinea 37-10 and win the inaugural Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship in Suva on Saturday.
The opening 20 minutes of the first women’s international to be played on Fijian soil were inevitably nervy from both sides, the hosts playing their first test in 10 years and the visitors their first ever.
Both teams gradually settled into a routine and were eager to play positive and exciting rugby, although Fijiana were able to dictate play with their dominance in the scrum to the delight of the vocal home crowd at ANZ Stadium.
Fijiana fly-half Merewalesi Rokounou opened the scoring with an early penalty and impressive centre Litiana Lawedrau crossed for the first of her two tries in the match in the 17th minute to make it 8-0.
But the Palias of Papua New Guinea worked tirelessly, sniffing out turnovers where possible and seized on the scraps of possession they got, working full-back Joanne Lagona over within minutes to cut the deficit to three points.
Fijiana tight-head prop Esiteri Bulikiobo (pictured left) was a standout, highlighting her strength and deceptive pace perfectly with two constrasting plays, bursting through sevens defenders to scorer her side’s second try just past the half-hour mark and then chasing down a PNG winger.
The score remained 13-5 through to half-time but as when play resumed it was Papua New Guinea who struck the next blow, number eight Debbie Kaore crossing for an unconverted try in the 47th minute to revive their hopes.
Fijiana, though, were able to regroup and managed to find their composure to close the match out with four further tries that whipped the home crowd into a frenzy.
A day of history for Fiji
Replacement forward Makereta Tunidau and Lawedrau crossed for the first two to make it 25-10 just past the hour mark, but it was only when replacement hooker Vilisi Vakaloloma grabbed two tries in four minutes at the death that the gloss was put on the win.
Fijiana will now represent the Oceania region in a tournament with hosts Hong Kong and Japan from 9-17 December with the top two teams claiming the final two places at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland.
“It feels fantastic,” enthused Fijiana captain Laillanie Burnes. “It’s such a proud moment, it’s an historical event for women’s rugby and women across all of Fiji. We want to say a big Vinaka Vaka Lelu to the people of Fiji and to all those who believe in used.
“We now have the WRWC qualifying in December. It is a tough road but you know what, we are going back into training to work even harder and make everyone proud. The next tournament in Hong Kong is another stepping stone and we are going all the way to Ireland.”
Fijiana coach Seremai Bai added: “We still have a lot of work to do as we have had just three weeks together. I am proud of them, for them to come out and play like that in front of their home crowd.
“We are creating history today, not only for the players but also for us as coaching and management trying to put things together. I am really glad we have managed to qualify for Hong Kong. This really means a lot for the girls, their families. It was very pleasing.”
For Papua New Guinea captain Maragaret Naua it was the end of a dream. “It was a really tough match. We just made too many errors, we were rushing our game too much. We needed to settle as we had a good first half but Fijiana finished much stronger.”
There was some consolidation in the fact the Palias will enter the Women’s Rugby World Rankings when they update on Monday at 12:00 GMT in 40th place, the defeat taking 0.46 rating points off their entry total of 40.00. The points exchange means Fijiana will climb above Kenya and Bosnia and Herzegovina into 30th.
Photos: Bruce Southwick/Zoomfiji