The Cook Islands’ incredible international season continued as they booked their place in the final of the SP Brewery Pacific Cup with a last-gasp win over Fiji in Port Moresby today.
The Cooks’ thrilling 24-22 win in the dying seconds of the match will see them face either Papua New Guinea or Tonga for a spot in the 2010 Four Nations tournament alongside Australia, New Zealand and England.
Last year’s World Cup semi-finalists Fiji – the game’s number one ranked Pacific nation - looked set for victory as they sneaked into a 22-20 lead with three minutes remaining.
But poor handling had plagued the Bati all afternoon, and two crucial errors as they defended their line in the dying stages allowed the Cooks to pinch the match-winning try with seconds to go.
The Cook Islands started the stronger on a windy afternoon at Lloyd Robson Oval, building a 10-0 lead thanks to tries from Vincent Ngaro and man-of-the-match Daniel Fepuleai.
Fiji failed to match the Cooks’ enthusiastic attack in the early stages, but finally found their rhythm when Newcastle Knights winger Akuila Uate powered over after 20 minutes.
Fiji levelled the scoreboard shortly afterwards when Ryan Millard set up the position for a Lepani Waqa try, creating a 10-all half-time deadlock.
The Cook Islands re-built their ten-point lead early in the second half, as Gold Coast Titans winger Dominic Peyroux and Fepuleai crossed for further scores.
Fiji struggled to find a way through the unrelenting Cook Islands defence, but with barely ten minutes remaining, they began their comeback.
First Uate burrowed over for his second try, before a series of probing attacks resulted in Mike Ratu forcing his way through the Cook Islands defence to level the scores at 20-all.
Captain and Newcastle Knights star Wes Naiqama converted superbly from the touchline in strong winds, and Fiji thought they were home.
But their handling let them down again, as two knock-ons in the final few minutes allowed the Cook Islands to run the Bati defence ragged, eventually leaving a gap on the wing for Peyroux to gather a high kick and score the Cook Islands’ match-winning try with seconds remaining.
Wes Naiqama, whose impressive touchline conversion looked to have won the match for Fiji, said, “It just proves that it’s not over until the fat lady sings”.
“We’re really disappointed but the Cooks played a great game and you’ve got to give them credit.”
The Cook Islands only qualified for the tournament thanks to a shock playoff victory over Samoa in Cairns, and now find themselves 80 minutes away from a place in next year’s Four Nations.
“I’m just really happy for the boys,” said Cook Islands coach David Fairleigh.
“No-one really gave us a chance but we’re here now.
“We’ve achieved a little bit just by getting here with our international ranking, but now we’ve got an opportunity to achieve a little bit more.”
The Cook Islands will face the winner of tomorrow’s game between Papua New Guinea and Tonga in the tournament final on Sunday 1 November.
Australian viewers can view the matches live online thanks to BigPond Sports' LeagueTV.