Fiji: Pretenders or contenders?
By Billy Painter and Alastair Finn
Last Updated: 16/11/17 4:33pm
As we enter the quarter-final stage of the Rugby League World Cup there has been a lot of focus on Tonga's upset against New Zealand, PNG's formidable displays in Port Moresby, and whether England or New Zealand can lift their game in the knockout stages to cause a serious threat to the Aussies.
One nation that has flown under the radar though is Fiji. With a 100 percent record throughout the group stages and an impressive points difference of 140 amassed in the process, the Fijians should not be overlooked.
The 2017 tournament marks Fiji's fifth consecutive World Cup appearance, and after making the semi-finals in 2008 and 2013 - surely their next goal has to be going that one step further and making the Final on December 2.
Mick Potter's side eased past the USA 58-12 in their opening game before really turning on the style against Wales the following week, posting 14 tries in a 72-6 rout. Melbourne Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu grabbed a hat-trick in that win and backed it up the following week with another against Italy - a match that Fiji won 38-10.
It's debatable how much the group games really tested Fiji, with all three opponents fielding some part-time players and all three playing on southern hemisphere territory - an advantage that can be often overlooked. To rack up those scorelines however, is nonetheless impressive and should be commended.
Their next challenge is of a different calibre though when they face New Zealand, in Wellington. The Kiwis on home soil will pose a much greater threat, and the outcome of this game will give a real indicator of where Fiji are at as a side and how close they are to rugby league's tier one nations.
Having suffered only their fourth defeat in their last four World Cups last week - three of those losses have been in finals - New Zealand have an excellent record before Saturday's showdown.
It will be interesting to see how David Kidwell's side react following the defeat to Tonga. Will that result trigger a more determined mindset from the Kiwis, a side now more hungry for World Cup success? Or will we see a side that has their confidence knocked and become doubtful of whether they can challenge for honours? Fiji will be hoping for the latter.
Cutting out the amount of errors they make will be crucial if they are to shock the Kiwis. Fiji play an expansive brand of rugby league, with trick plays aplenty - but of course this comes with a degree of risk that they will have to be wary of.
Jarryd Hayne and Henry Raiwalui in the halves will need to continue to steer their side around the park, and they will need their backline - which has been sensational thus far - to fire once again. Manly hooker Apisai Koroisau has been highly influential throughout also, his quick scoots out of dummy half instantly putting sides' defensive lines on the back foot and gaining valuable metres up field in the process.
Hayne, whose try against Wales made him the leading try scorer in World Cup history, has a plethora of big-game experience and will be need to be at his very best on Saturday. 'The Hayne Plane' has featured at stand-off in all three games so far for Fiji, a position that the Gold Coast Titan is not overly accustomed to - not only does this show the versatility of Hayne, but the strength of backs available to Mick Potter.
The Fijian backline of Marcelo Montoya, Akuila Uate, Taane Milne and Vunivalu provide a huge threat to any defence, and guided by a controlling influence of captain Kevin Naiqama at full-back, puts Mick Potter's 1-5 up there with the strongest in the World Cup. This backline has remained unchanged throughout the tournament too, offering a very settled and finely-tuned composition that has grown game-on-game.
NRL 2017 top try-scorer Suliasi Vunivalu unsurprisingly takes his club form for Melbourne into the World Cup and currently sits top of the World Cup try-scorers' charts - scoring eight in the opening three games. The speed, step and power of the 21-year old is something to marvel at, dazzling the crowds and causing endless unrest to opposition defences. He's a special player and someone that you wouldn't back against hitting a double-figure try tally come the end of the tournament.
It will be an intriguing contest when Fiji face New Zealand on Saturday - Fiji are a side that have been on the periphery for a many years.
With the team they possess in 2017 we will see whether they have the playing personnel required and whether they have managed to tweak the finer details to mount a challenge this time round - and announce themselves as a genuine threat in world rugby league.