You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
The New Zealand side trailed for more than an hour and could have lost in the last few minutes, before eventually squeaking home 24-18.
For a long time it felt like a repeat of the nightmare 2017 scenario, with Fiji set to ambush the Kiwis again at the quarter-final stage.
Wing Jordan Rapana was an unlikely hero, kicking four pressure goals and diving over for a try on the hooter to seal the result.
The Kiwis will face Australia next week, though they will need a quantum leap in quality to get close to the world champions. The Kiwis were down 12-0 after 17 minutes, then 18-6 early in the second half.
They started to dominate in the final quarter, but had to defend three consecutive sets on their line in the final stages, where any score from the Bati would have seen New Zealand out of the tournament.
The Kiwis walked the tightrope for most of the match and coach Michael Maguire’s reaction said it all, as he was frozen in the seat for a few minutes after the final whistle.
This was meant to be the game that everything came together for the Kiwis – after mixed efforts in the group stages – but it never really happened as they were plagued by mistakes and ill-discipline, though they at least showed considerable courage and spirit to fight back.
Fullback Joseph Manu was again outstanding – with 304 running metres – while the forwards did well to match up to a willing Fiji pack. Fiji were massive underdogs with the bookmakers but tore up the script with a remarkable performance.
Maguire opted for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at centre, while Nelson Asofa-Solomona was in the second row, though he later switched to the middle. Everything that could go wrong in the first quarter from a Kiwis perspective, did.
Fiji were up for the fight but the men in Black and White were their own worst enemies. They gave away needless yardage penalties, as well as six again sets, to give Fiji momentum and they were good enough to take advantage.
Clever hands from Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau created space for Maika Sivo to power over – though Rapana and Peta Hiku had misread the numbers.
Six minutes later, Kevin Naiqama ran a brilliant line to slice through between Dylan Brown and Nicoll-Klokstad to extend their lead. The Kiwis were in a hole. A clever scrum move created space for Ronaldo Mulitalo to flash over and Rapana responded to recent criticism to convert from the sideline.
That should have been the start of something but it never eventuated in the first half, despite plenty of possession in the right areas. A long-range Mulitalo break went unrewarded and balls were dropped close to the line, as the committed Fijian defence compressed the space and time superbly.
The issues continued after the break. Rapana coughed up near halfway before Naiqama scored a brilliant solo try, catching Brown cold from dummy half. Back rower Briton Nikora forced his way over through three defenders, to give the Kiwis some hope and they started to, finally, win the arm wrestle. A magnificent Brandon Wakeham tackle prevented Mulitalo from scoring, before Kenny Bromwich shelled the ball metres before the line.
A Mulitalo fumble then gifted the Fijians a goal-line dropout, though the Kiwis held on. New Zealand finally levelled in the 62nd minute through Manu, after Brown had created space for Mulitalo on the left flank. But the indiscipline continued, as a Hiku push gave away a penalty – via a captain’s challenge – which meant a Sivo knock-on went unpunished. If that was unfortunate, the Kiwis got lucky with their own challenge, after Manu was stripped of the ball and Rapana’s clutch 30-metre penalty gave them the lead.
But New Zealand still made it hard for themselves, with consecutive unforced errors inviting Fiji into their territory. It looked dicey – but somehow they hung on – before Rapana’s late, late try finally put Fiji away, after the Kiwis managed a repeat set.
Kiwis 24 (Ronaldo Mulitalo, Briton Nikora, Joseph Manu, Jordan Rapana tries; Rapana 3 cons, pen)
Fiji 18 (Kevin Naiqama 2, Maika Sivo tries; Brandon Wakeham 3 cons)