Heavy hits from Islanders
By MITCHELL DALE
EVEN before the opening whistle sounded in Wednesday night's Fiji-Cook Islands match at International Stadium, it was clear the two Polynesian tribes were ready to rumble.
Neither side took a backward step when the two nations' traditional war dances overlapped in the centre of the field and the scene nearly erupted into pre-match fisticuffs.
Once the footy started, the match turned out to be a thriller, with Cook Islands getting their noses in front in the last quarter before a Fijian try on full-time snatched a 20-all draw.
Cook Islands looked the better side in attack early on and took a 8-4 lead to the half-time break.
Fiji came out firing after the resumption, scoring twice in quick succession to skip out to a 16-8 lead before Cook Islands pegged back the deficit to two points with a converted try on three-quarter time.
The Cook Islanders were finishing the stronger of the two sides and looked to have the match in hand when Tino Sila cut through to score with seven minutes to go, giving his side a 20-16 lead.
But with their last throw of the dice Fiji produced a winner, with replacement Jone Macilatia crossing in the corner to level the scores.
Although they had victory snatched from their grasp, the Cook Islanders weren't complaining.
"I'm not disappointed, I am so proud of their effort," Cook Islands coach Bushy Konito said.
"We have come out of an era when the Cook Islands were the easy beats.
"Fiji thought they would be able to come over the top of us, but we showed we can play a physical style of football.
"Unfortunately a couple of decisions didn't go our way, but we have to learn to live with that, the referees are still trying to get their fitness up like the players."
Former Coffs Harbour league identity Mal Fittler, who coached the Fijians during their down-under trip, was pleased with his side's defence, but not their attack.
"I just felt there was too much one-out stuff in attack, they needed to stand deeper and run in pairs," Fittler said.
"They could have run a bit wider too, rather than straight up the middle.
"I thought the Cook Islands were far better in attack, they had a lot more variety.
"It was only our good defence which kept them out.
"But, considering half our side arrived from Sydney at 6am (Wednesday), it was not a bad effort."