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Fiji's Lion tamers

Manoj Kumar
Saturday, February 16, 2013

The year 1977 began well for the Fiji rugby side and coach Inoke Tabualevu. A three-Test series was lined up against Tonga at home.

The first Test was scheduled for July 9 at Churchill Park in Lautoka. Nadroga's Wame Gavidi, who featured at wing alongside Joape Kuinikoro with Qele Ratu and Robert Howard the inside backs, scored one try and stand-off Pio Bosco Tikoisuva got the other. Fullback Kemueli Musunamasi added a penalty and a conversion as Fiji won 13-9.

A week later, the second Test was held at Prince Charles Park, Nadi. This time Nadroga halfback Isimeli Batibasaga was the star of the show, scoring a try, three conversions and a penalty as Tikoisuva skippered Fiji to a convincing 33-7 win after leading only 14-3 at the break. Fiji's other try scorers were centre Howard, Kuinikoro, Gavidi, Naitasiri hooker Antonio Racika and prop Nimilote Ratudina.

The third Test in Suva was a one-sided affair with the Fijians running riot. Gavidi made it three tries from three Test matches and Kuinikoro added a double to go with his touchdown in the second Test. There were five other try scorers — second five Ratu, Tikoisuva, Naitasiri giant and number eight Ilaitia Tuisese, Rewa prop Josefa Rauto and lock Apenisa Tokairavua — as the Tongans were humiliated 43-9. Again Fiji ran away with the game in the second spell after holding a slender 11-6 lead at half-time.

Three wins from as many games against our Pacific rivals and the stage was set for the showdown the entire Fiji was waiting for — the clash against the British Lions at Buckhurst Park on August 16, 1977.

Powerful Lions

Before touching down in Fiji, the Lions, on tour of New Zealand, played 25 times in the Land of the Long White Cloud. This included four Test matches against the All Blacks. They won 21 and lost four. The Lions beat all their New Zealand provincial opponents, their losses being against the All Blacks (3) and against the NZ Universities team a few days before the first Test. The Kiwis won the Test series 3-1 but after the second Test it was 1-1 and the Lions almost made it 2-2 in the fourth Test. They led 9-6 going into injury time only to concede a match-winning try scored by ABs Lawrie Knight. The Lions lost the first Test 12-16, won the second 13-9, lost the third and fourth Test matches 7-19 and 9-10 respectively.

Huge crowd

Some 15 to 20,000 fans turned up at Laucala. The Fijians had Musunamasi at fullback, Kuinikoro and Gavidi on the wings, Ratu (12) and Senitiki Nasave (13) as midfield backs and Tikoisuva at flyhalf. Nadi's Samisoni Viriviri was halfback with Lautoka's Viliame Ratudradra at number eight. Vuata Naresia (7) and the late Rupeni Qaraniqio (6) were the flankers. Ilisoni Taoba and Ilaitia Tuisese were our go-to man in the lineouts with Rauto, Ratudina and Racika (hooker) upfront.

Fiji played with the wind behind them in the first half and took good advantage of it. Kuinikoro lost the ball over the line and Musunamasi put his foot in touch as Fiji pressed early on.

Fiji finally broke the deadlock in the 8th minute. Tikoisuva threw an over-head pass to Ratu, who drew the defence and fed Nasave.

An inside pass to Naresia saw the Nadi giant touchdown. Fiji 4-0. Bennett kicked a penalty to make it 4-3 to Fiji. But four minutes later a well-placed kick by Ratu was misjudged by fullback Andy Irvine and Kuinikoro came through to dive over. Again the conversion missed. Fiji 8-3. In the 31st minute, Nasave freed up Rauto and put him in the clear to score under the sticks. Rauto converted his own try. Fiji 14-3. The Lions then showed sheer power as their pack drove through on the blindside and Bennett scored. The conversion had Fiji leading 14-9 at half-time.

Spectacular winner

Tikoisuva then slotted in a drop goal to extend Fiji's lead to 17-9. A Lions counter-attack saw them run in a well-worked try with several players handling the ball before Bill Beaumont scored. Bennett converted and it was game on again. Fiji 17-15. Ratudradra did the hard yards and helped Racika to yet another Fiji try. 21-15. The missed conversions were not helping Fiji's cause and soon the Lions were level 21-21 with a converted try to centre David Burcher. Just as full-time approached and it looked like the game would end in a draw, Fiji struck with a great try. The move began from midfield when Nasave linked up with Ratu before sprinting clear and off-loading to Tikoisuva. Naresia was running in support and he took the pass from his captain, changed direction and bullied his way over in the corner.

The Lions were tamed and Tabualevu stepped down from his position on a high saying he wanted to give chance to a "young coach". This match is still remembered and talked about today.

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