IT was the battle of the openside flankers and halfbacks at Lawaqa Park last Saturday.
Lautoka's Flying Fijians Alipate Vuaviri and nuggety halfback Kelemedi Bola faced stiff competition from their Nadroga counterparts and the rest of the competition will be an interesting tussle for the defending champions and coach Esala Nauga.
Nadroga flanker Sailosi Rabonaqica and Fiji under-20 halfback Sakiusa Gavidi showed brilliant glimpses at Lawaqa Park last Saturday and helped the hosts escape with a 25-17 win over a determined Lautoka side.
Tailevu, Nadroga and Suva are the three consistent teams in the competition with Tailevu remaining unbeaten and they are most likely to finish at the top four.
But the Digicel Cup competition fourth spot is still wide open with Nadi, Lautoka, Naitasiri, Northland, Ovalau, Tavua and Macuata fighting hard for that spot and are having a roller-coaster ride.
Lautoka's second-half surge at Lawaqa Park was impressive as halfback Bola and Vuaiviri spearheaded the Maroons attack.
Rabonaqica is a former national sevens rep and has been showing impressive form. He is huge and has the pace to outrun the opposition in the open or in tight situations. He worked hard with blindside flanker Iliesa Ratuva and number eight Mosese Volavola in battling for possession while the locking pair of Sekonaia Kalou and Ulaiasi Lawavou were impressive in the tights and on a number of occasions on attack.
Lawavou comes from Vunamoli village up in the rugged hills and rough countryside at the border of Nadroga/Navosa and Ba province. It shows in his game as he is not only a tough customer but physically able to be a loose forward when the situation demands.
On Saturday, he intercepted a Lautoka pass and fed prop Peni Ravai for Nadroga's first try and was always in close support of Rabonaqica's big runs. However, Rabo will have to do the extra work and master skills in the close quarter situations on his body positioning in the tackle ball and ball retention. He gave away possession to Lautoka in a couple of such situations.
Halfback Gavidi is a fresh showpiece and has that lithe and darting moves that made Emosi Vucago hard to beat in local rugby.
During one of his pursuits of his opposite Bola around the scrum, he received a reverse pass that was aimed at a Lautoka player. He screeched to a halt on the hard dusty surface and changed direction to the tryline. Bola probably thought he was a Lautoka supporting player because of the way he was running up close appearing from behind the scrum.
Showing incredible speed, he outran the defence and went over with the Lautoka fullback hanging on his back.
Lautoka's big forwards were heavier and quite unstoppable near the tryline yet they were often pushed back in the scrums.
Vuaviri of Vuda Blues has been a Warriors flanker but made his debut for Fiji against Tonga at Churchill Park on June 23.
Nadroga had their hands full trying to contain the rugged flanker and hopefully he will get more game time in the future for Fiji.
Coach Viliame Satala and his technical support team led by longtime former Army rugby star forward Mulase Bainivalu knew what they were doing.
One of the signs of a great coach is one who can effectively change his team's performance after the break.
An interesting game to watch and observe is the Friday nights Australia Football League.
Instead of two halves they have four quarters and that means three breaks and opportunities for the coaches and technical team to make amends.
The coaches run into the ground with their technical advisors and big sheets of paper that has the match statistics of the past quarter.
Immediately when the game resumes we can witness a change of fortune for the losing team and this repeats itself in the two remaining breaks.
Our local coaches may not have the state-of-the-art coaches laptops that throws up everything on the screen but we can always take a leaf from great sevens coach Gordon Tietjens. Tietjens relies solely on his notebook and perhaps when he retires he will write his autobiography and reveal to us all the contents of those notebooks.
That happened with Lautoka and they almost came within inches of upsetting Nadroga at Lawaqa Park.
In the second-half Bola kept possession within his pack and they played mostly in the Nadroga side of the ground.
Series of forward drives saw them score two tries from the forwards.
Nadroga had been trying to uncork their free flowing game but ball retention, mishandling and poor lineout work saw them at times in a scrappy affair.
With first-five Jonetani Ralulu back in action in the second-half, the champagne bottle finally popped and burst in the final moments of the game.
A typical backline passing move on the left flank took the game near the tryline and when the ball came out of the ensuing ruck it flowed down the line to big prop Setefano Samoca who tucked his head low and went crashing onto the green turf.
Lautoka showed they are focused on getting to the top four and they showed they have all the ingredients of a champion side.
While the forwards led by Vuaiviri know their way to the tryline, their backline also have some fleetfooted youngsters who would have gained a lot of confidence from that close call against Nadroga on Saturday.
In the Super Rugby competition defending champions Reds returned to winning form booting the Brumbies out of the top six and final showdown.
The Brumbies only have themselves to blame after a poor showing against the Blues — who have finally showed championship form at the end of the season.
The Brumbies will have to develop the same young team and wait for the recovery of mercurial first-five Christian Leleafano from injury.
Zac Holmes is a kicker but does not have that Leleafano magic of weaving moves and patterns around the rugby field.
The Brumbies kicked the game away from where previously they had kept ball in hand and ran or bulldozed their way through the opposition.
It just happened that when they played their worst that the struggling Blues played their best rugby match of the season and this happened in Canberra.
The Hurricanes are the most unlucky team having found form only at the end of the competition.
Had they qualified for the playoffs they would have definitely been there at the very top of he competition.
The Crusaders are the traditional powerbase of New Zealand rugby and their impressive form of late reminds us of that adage — when the going gets tough the tough get going.