NZ Maori scrape past Fiji

01:43, Jan 31 2009

A second-half try from former All Blacks lock Jason Eaton has given New Zealand Maori an important victory over Fiji in the Pacific Nations Cup rugby competition in Lautoka, Fiji.

Down 3-7 at halftime following a converted try to Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki, the Maori side came back to snatch a 11-7 win on a water-logged Churchill Park.

The match was in danger of being called off after ankle-deep water covered the ground following a torrential downpour.

But ground officials assured the match officials that the water would drain off quickly, and it did soon after kickoff.

However, it made playing conditions difficult for two teams more accustomed to running rugby and it was evident from the stop-start affair that neither side had planned for a wet-weather game.

Although co-captain and second five-eighth Tamati Ellison gave New Zealand Maori the lead with a 12th-minute penalty goal, the Fijians adapted to the conditions quicker and dominated the first half.

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Taniela Rawaqa missed two shots at goal from handy positions and two strong runs from Naqelevuki, who played for the Sharks in the Super 14, took the game close to the Maori side's line.

Naqelevuki then charged down Maori halfback Chris Smylie's clearing kick and pounced on the loose ball for the only first-half try. Rawaqa converted and Fiji led 7-3 at halftime.

New Zealand Maori appeared to settle better when Eaton's Hurricanes teammate Piri Weepu took the field at halfback in the second half.

His options helped his team gain vital ground in the atrocious conditions.

New Zealand Maori edged in front when Eaton was driven over the tryline from a lineout close to the line.

That gave them an 8-7 lead, which replacement back Callum Bruce stretched with a penalty goal five minutes from fulltime.

Both teams had come into the game with a win each, New Zealand beating over Tonga 20-9 and Fiji beating Samoa 34-17 in the first round last weekend.

Maori team manager Peter Potaka said they were delighted with the win given the circumstances.

"We (Fiji and Maori team officials) had to agree to kick off because the ground was flooded," he told NZPA.

"In the end (referee) Matt Goddard felt sorry for the teams and decided to go ahead. The Fijians were very keen to get on and it was pretty difficult for both teams.

"I think our front rowers and the tight five won a few crucial tussles to turn the game our way and we're extremely happy with this win."

Potaka said his team had targeted this match as one of their most important fixtures in the competition.

"This was going to be one of the hardest and the conditions made it even harder. But we've come through it and the boys are pretty happy."

Potaka said the only injury concern going into next Saturday's match against Samoa in Hamilton was flanker Daniel Braid, who had a strained calf muscle.

-NZPA