Samoa dominated their Pacific rivals Fiji in a tight, scrappy match in Pool D.
The conditions in Auckland on a rainy afternoon were far from ideal for the type of running flair that both teams are renowned for. The Samoans gained the upper hand early in the scrum exchanges and also at the breakdown, leading to an almost total lack of possession for Fiji. Both sides displayed the kind of bone jarring defence that observers have come to expect, and although Samoa showed some running intent they couldn’t cross the Fijian try line. Their territorial dominance was translated into points from the accurate boot of Tusi Pisi, as they went out to a 12-0 lead at half time.
In the second half, a further penalty to Pisi took the lead out to 15 before the sun came out and the players responded as if solar powered. Both sides started to hold the ball better and the game loosened, and it was Samoa who took first advantage. They turned an attacking scrum to open the blindside for their halves to run, and after Pisi attacked and was pulled down, Kahn Fotuali’i scrambled his way over. 20-0 after 60 minutes and Fiji looked finished.
At 66 minutes though, the Fijians struck back to give themselves a glimpse of a chance. A Samoan lineout was stolen, centre Gabirieli Lovobalavu stepped his way through the midfield, and after a few pick and go attempts on the line the ball went wide to blindside flanker Netani Talei, who had space to touch down; some reward for his fine efforts in the match. Seremaia Bai was successful with the conversion and the Fijian supporters in the crowd came to life, trying to lift their team.
A comeback was not to be though and Samoa hit back almost immediately. Fotuali’i, whose class shone though in the match, ripped the ball away from a Fijian attacker and the ball went wide to fullback Paul Williams who made a strong break. Number 8 George Stowers was in support to finish the movement, good reward for three of the standout players in the game. Williams also hit the conversion to round out the scoring. The final ten minutes of the match were full of endeavour from both sides but the outcome was certain and Fiji could not secure a consolation try.
Overall this was a disappointing match for the 60,000 sell-out crowd at Eden Park. Fiji in particular were sloppy with the ball and both sides lacked sharpness when the ball went out to their backs. For Samoa, Fotuali’i gave strong direction, Stowers was powerful, Tusi Pisi was accurate with his boot and man of the match Williams ran strongly and kicked well. For Fiji, flanker Talei stood out in his bright red headgear, and wing Vereniki Goneva showed some strong defence on crowd favourite Alesana Tuilagi.
Samoa face South Africa in their final pool match while Fiji will take on Wales. Any of those four teams could still conceivably qualify for the quarter final; Fiji would have to beat Wales by a huge margin and hope that South Africa did the same to Samoa; Samoa can control their own fate and qualify by beating the Boks, although a Fiji win at the same time would make the bonus point permutations less complicated. The group of death is still alive.