Fiji confirmed their World Cup quarter-final match against the loser of tomorrow’s New Zealand v Tonga match, after a 38-10 win over Italy.
Italy entered the match needing to win by a clear 46 points – against a side who had racked up 130 points in their first two games – if they hoped to unseat Fiji from the top of the group and take their quarter-final place.
And the tension clearly showed in a bad-tempered game that saw three sin-binnings in the first half.
Italy gave away six penalities in the first 10 minutes before Jayden Walker was shown the yellow card for a professional foul.
Marcelo Montoya broke the Italian line for Fiji and raced away before being stopped by a James Tedesco. But, with Italy racing back to get their defensive line in place, second man in Walker failed to clear the ruck and took a 10-minute breather.
But despite that opening, it was the Azzurri who opened the scoring – though only after a Fiji effort was disallowed.
Suliasi Vunivalu got his hands on the ball behind his own players and stormed through the Italian line to cross the whitewash – only to see the ref award a penalty for obstruction.
Almost immediately, Josh Mantellato – the player who was obstructed – dived over the line at the other end to give Italy an unexpected 4-0 lead.
And Mantellato had a part to play in the next score, too.
He failed to collect a kick from Fiji playmaker Jarryd Hayne, and Kevin Naiquama collected the loose ball to score. Apisai Koroisau kicked the conversion to make the scoreline 6-4 to Fiji.
The next noteworthy action was – unsurprisingly given the penalties and bad temper in early part of the game – a mass brawl which saw Italy’s Joe Tremontana sin-binned for punching Vunivalu on the floor and Hayne joining him for running in.
That came just after the half-hour mark the rest of the game’s first half was played between two 12-strong teams – which made another score almost inevitable.
It came just before the break when Henry Rawalui took advantage of a well-worked gap in the Italian defence to put the ball down under the posts. With Koroisau’s conversion, that made the halftime score 12-4.
Once the second half got under way, it was Italy who again opened the scoring – though in an unconventional way.
The Azzurri were pressing when an offload went to ground and was hacked on. They regathered, only for another offload to hit the ground and be hacked on, bounce away from Fiji fullback Naiquama, strike the post and rebound into the grateful hands of Nathan Milone – who promptly grounded it for a try.
Mantellato’s goal put Italy within two points of the pre-match favourites.
And they nearly took the lead 10 minutes later - when Mason Cerruto broke free and seemingly had a clear line for the posts.
But a superb tackle from Naiquama dislodged the ball. Montoya raced away up the left after gathering the loose ball, before the Bati moved the ball to the right from Brayden Williame to go over unopposed. Koroisau missed the kick from out wide, but the Fijian lead was extended to six points at 16-10.
Minutes later Vunivalu stretched that to 10 points after breaking a tackle in midfield and racing away, before Koroisau’s conversion made it 22-10.
Eight minutes later he had completed a hat-trick, aided by Taane Milne, who had taken over goal-kicking duties and at 34-10, the score was looking more like the blow-out pre-match commentators had expected, with just 10 minutes to go.
Five minutes later, Montayo put the icing on the cake, after being on the receiving end of a superb pass from Naiquama, although Milne missed the conversion.
And in a final touch, Jarryd Hayne dotted down in the closing minutes – only to be called back by referee Robert Hicks for a forward pass.
Fiji: Naiqama (T), Vunivalu (3T), Milne (2G), Uate, Montoya (T), Hayne (SB), Raiwalui (T), Sims, Koroisau (3G), Vunakece, Kikau, Wiliame (T), Kamikamica. Subs: Lovodua, Saifiti, Roqica, Nakubuwai.
Italy: Tedesco, Cerruto, Castellaro, Milone (T), Mantellato (T, G), Campese, Ghietti, Vaughan, Tromontana (SB), Alvaro, Walker (SB), Minichiello, Brown. Subs: Santi, Wakeman, Calegari, Reithmuller.
Referee: Robert Hicks.