New Zealand - ranked No 1 in the world - took on Fiji in the third rugby league World Cup quarter final of this weekend, with the winner facing Australia in the semis.
The Black and Whites were clear favourites, despite the Bati’s famous 2017 win at the same stage, that dumped the Kiwis out of the competition that year, and their own failure to convincingly gell as a team in the tournament so far.
New Zealand kicked the game off, after both teams initially went to the wrong ends. Both teams exchanged steady opening sets, with the the Kiwis making slightly more territory - and promptly surrendering that advantage by being caught offside.
In fact, they conceded two penalties and a set restart in the first 10 minutes, leading to an easy score by Maika Sivo after he caught a tip-on pass by Village Kikau with clear grass in front of him. Brandon Wakeham converted from the touchline - his 13th of the tournament - and Fiji were on the right side of of a 0-6 scoreline
Kevin Naiqama found himself racing onto a bullet pass 20m out and ran a superb line to double Fiji’s score by dashing under the posts for an easy conversion by Wakeham. The Bati were outstanding value for the 0-12 lead against a Kiwi side looking at odds and ends and distinctly off the pace.
But when they got a scrum 10m out after 25 minutes, a quick move round to the left left the Fiji defence flatfooted. Slick passing then saw Ronaldo Mulitalo dive in in the corner. With Jordan Rapana’s conversion, the Kiwis clawed the scoreline back to 6-12.
They threatened again on the half-hour mark, only Joseph Manu to lose the drop the ball. And when the Kiwis looked set to cross the line again, the Fijian defence numbered up with the result that once more the ball was lost forward.
New Zealand continued to press and attack the Fijian line for the remainder of the half, but the Bait defence held out and moved upfield to end the first 40 in the lead and the game was showing every sign of being the competitive encounter the tournament - and fans - had been crying out for.
Fiji must have been quietly content their prospects - for New Zealand, it was going to come down to the half-time talk and whether they could find the cohesion and organisation they needed to stay in the competition.
The half was just three minutes old when Naiqama crossed the lie in the corner . After the grounding was checked with the video ref, they score moved to 6-16. Wakeham made it 6-18.
New Zealand hit back and put the Fiji line under pressure, and with Briton Nikora held by two defenders four metres from the try line, one fell off in an attempted ball strip and Nikora powered forward to score. The Kiwi pressure was kept up in their next set, keeping Fiji in their own 20m as New Zealand won the early arm wrestle.
They crossed the lie in the left corner but the move went upstair to confirm that the ball was held up as Fijian defender Jahrome Hughes pushed the attack into touch-in-goal. But the Kiwis kept piling on the pressure until Fiji forced a lost ball and beat Mulitalo with a long kick, forcing a goal-line drop-out.
But the following Bati set came to nothing, as the game developed an end-to-end rhythm as the game entered the last quarter.
But it was New Zealand fullback Joey Manu who raced onto a short pass to run through and score on the left. Rapana converted to level the score at 18-18.
With 68 minutes gone, Fiji challenged a knock-on ruling when receiving an end-of-set kick and won a penalty, but anded the following set by running into a New Zealand forward under the posts. That was then followed by a Kiwi captain’’s challenge over a knock-on in the tackle - and won a penalty for a steal in front of the Kiwi posts, 30m out.
Rapana teed up, kicked and the Kiwis were in front for the first time, with 70 minutes of the match gone.
Fiji responded with three attacking sets in a row, starting the third with a scrum on the Kiwi 10 and then promptly losing the goal.
After an intense set of six tackled pressing the Fiji line, the Kiwi’s move the ball out to the 33-year-old Rapana on the wing who dived in over the corner for four more points. H lined up for a touchline conversion, but his miss made no difference to the result.
There was no repeat of 2017 and New Zealand qualified for the semi-final against Australia by 24-18 from the World Cup’s most competitive match to date.
Now it was all down to Tonga and Samoa to see what they could provide on Sunday.
New Zealand: Manu (T); Rapana (T, P, 3G), Hiku, Nicole-Klokstad, Mulitalo (T); Brown, Hughes; J Browmwich, Smith, Fisher-Harris, K Bromwich, Asofa-Solomona, Tapine. Subs: Papali’i, Foran, Nikora (T), Lui.
Fiji: Turuva; Karawalevu, Naiqama (2T), Valemei, Sivo (T); Koroisau, Wakeham (3G); Sims, Tagituimua, Kamikamica, Wong, Kikau, Sadrugu. Subs: Raiwului, Manuel-Liolevave, Nakubuwai, Vuniyayawa.
Full Time: 24-18.
Half Time: 6-12.
Score Progression: 0-4, 0-6, 0-10, 0-12, 4-12, 6-12, HT. 6-16, 6-18, 10-18, 12-18, 16-18, 18-18, 20-18, 24-18. FT.
Lead: Fiji - Square - New Zealand
Referee: Gerard Sutton
Attendance: 7,080 at MK Stadium, Hull.