IT LOOKED like the wrong throw of the dice but Netball Fiji team coach Una Rokoura had her tactics spot-on against Samoa last night.
With our side holding a comfortable 29-18 lead at half-time during the crucial LICI Pacific Netball Series tie, goal attack Maria Lutua, whose energy level, on-court movement, balance and shooting ability was admirable, was withdrawn and on came 17-year-old Unaisi Rauluni.
Rauluni, daughter of former Fiji sevens skipper, the late Vesi Rauluni, brought about her youthful exuberance, unpredictably and swift movement around giant goal shoot Taraima Mitchell but then somehow the rhythm in and around mid-court and the firepower and finesse under the rim looked lost for a while.
Samoan captain Kylie Leota, at GK, started holding her own in defence, making some crucial interceptions alongside goal defence Sanonu Robertson.
They started seeing more of the ball as Mitchell was at times caught off-guard and starved off possession.
The cohesiveness between our agile centre Vaiti Coa Waqatabu and the hardworking Alesi Waqa Raibevu was slowly lacking bite and the momentum started turning the way of the Samoans.
The 1500 mainly Fiji fans, including Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and the Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, were given some anxious moments as Samoa clawed their way from 25-35 down to 33-35.
This woke up the Samoan fans and the atmosphere was electrifying as both sets of fans had vocal support ringing around in the still of the night at the Vodafone Arena in Suva.
The third quarter break was timely for us and although we were 37-33 up it was nothing like the 16-8 first quarter lead or the 11-point half-time buffer.
Some fans thought that Mitchell, who wasn't a 100 per cent after landing awkwardly on her ankle in the opening stanza and had blisters on her foot, may be pulled off with Lutua to take on the main shooting role and Rauluni at GA but Rokoura knew what she was doing.
She pegged back young Rauluni and sent Lutua in again. The final 15 minutes though tense for both teams and their fans was exhilarating on the eyes of the neutrals.
In the end, Lutua's presence back on court was the key and Rokoura's side was in command again and finding the net regularly. We finished winners, 49-43.
Phew, that was close. Rokoura later explained her vital calls saying MJ, as Lutua is commonly known, was rested in the third quarter as she had worked her socks off over 30 minutes.
Former captain Rokoura said Mitchell was fine and kept her on as she wanted to use "a holding shooter (Mitchell)" and "moving shooter (Lutua)" stressing that Mitchell's height was a major contributing factor. A fiery start, a little glitch midway through the match but in the end we are one game away from claiming a PNS hat-trick. Matila Waqanidrola and Mere Rabuka are the rock at the back. Wing defence Luseanne Kotobalavu, Raibevu and Waqatabu provide the spark, agility and great movement, both on and off the ball, while tall timber Mitchell, despite coming back after a long lay-off, remains our key to getting the goals flowing. It was a good team effort against Samoa but there was also an X-factor.
Maria Josephine Lutua was a cut above the rest. The 23-year-old from Nakama Village in Macuata comes from a sporting family. Her uncle Jone Lutua represented Labasa as a soccer goalkeeper while another uncle, former Namosi rugby rep Antonio Nariva represented Fiji in 15s and aunt Sisilia Nasiga is a judo star. In MJ, another star has risen.
In the second quarter, she pulled off a stunning strike, a gem of goal while being airborne and off-court.
She was off-balance and shoved out but a little swivel of her hips, a 180-degree spin in mid-arm, and the bulge of the net said it all. The ball was in through the rim as she landed a metre out of court.
That was the play of the day. MJ is no ice skater but that move looked like one and I am sure there will be a lot of merrymaking and dancing in the Fiji camp tonight. I just don't see the Cooks spoiling our party.