Fiji v Papua New Guinea: Five key points
After a spirited and highly entertaining Test that Fiji held on to win 22-10 against a late-surging Papua New Guinea, here are five of the major talking points to arise from that game.
The talent gap is closing
Plenty of pundits were expecting that Fiji, after having reached the semi-finals of the 2013 World Cup and with a healthy dose of top-line NRL talent, would be far too strong for a PNG side with very few NRL representatives.
Others suggested that the additions of the PNG Hunters to Queensland's Intrust Super Cup may start to pay dividends and may even be able to cause an upset.
The upset may not quite have eventuated but a spirited PNG side fought back from 18-0 down to 18-10 and were the dominant side of the second half. If anything it was just a few passes and kicks lacking execution or polish or a couple of wrong options – including an intercept pass five minutes from time that sealed the deal – that stunted them as they looked to force what would have been an amazing comeback win.
PNG coach Mal Meninga said the Hunters' entry to the Intrust Cup was part of the building process towards the next World Cup.
"These guys, if they show the same sort of character and attitude they did in the second half more of them will be playing in the 2017 World Cup," Meninga said. "It's about growth and development of the players and certainly a better mindset around their self belief."
Defence is something to build on
That PNG only conceded four tries in 80 minutes and turned away a powerful Bati outfit from their tryline through several dangerous attacking sets is a huge confidence booster.
They actually missed far fewer tackles than their more fancied opposition, partly as a result of their own powerful running game breaking plenty of tackles in the second half as the likes of Stanten Albert (eight tackle busts), Matt Trnka and Nene McDonald (four apiece) charged into the Bati line.
Defence also proved the cornerstone for Fiji's victory when the Kumuls were coming home with a wet sail, which was what most pleased Bati coach Rick Stone.
"We lost our way a little bit with a few errors and we didn't start the second half well," Stone said.
"In the end we defended our line strong, we just made things a little bit harder for ourselves. One of our main things was to bring Kumuls off their own line and I thought we did that pretty well in the first half."
Koroibete a serious force
Marika Koroibete was already a very dangerous player when he headed down to Melbourne partway through the 2014 season but his form this year has been stunning. He turned in another powerful performance against the Kumuls with 200 metres, eight tackle busts, two line breaks and two tries.
"He is absolutely [one of the form players of the NRL] and he showed his class and what he can do when he gets half a chance, Marika," Stone said. "He was probably unlucky not to score a few more."
Pacific crowds know passion like no other
Coaches of both sides were drawn to comment, unprompted, on the phenomenal noise the PNG fans made every time their side got a sniff, while the Bati fans drove their side along in the first half.
"There's not many here but they were very loud!" Meninga said.
"It's certainly passionate, it will be good to go out and watch the next game [Samoa v Tonga], it's tradition, culture, family, it's really good stuff."
PNG captain Israel Eliab said the support from the crowd was key to his side's second-half resurgence.
"Certainly we could hear our fans... it's like they motivate us, giving us more strength and courage to play for our country," Eliab said.
Stone seemed almost envious of the boost his opponents received from the end bay in the second half.
"For me the thing I noticed the most, particularly at the end, was the noise," Stone said.
"I've never heard a crowd so small in number make so much noise. It's a terrific atmosphere to play [in]."
Korbin for Origin?
In a relatively inexperienced Fiji side that included some local Fijian players that haven't tasted even NSW Cup or Intrust Cup, Newcastle's Korbin Sims played a strong 80-minute hand and led they way.
Both his opposition coach Mal Meninga – who just happens to be the Queensland mentor – and his own club coach Rick Stone said Sims brings plenty of Origin-style traits.
"He's good value Korbin, been part of our system [at Queensland] for a while and playing well for the Knights," Meninga said.
"He's a big unit, good mobility, he's just a passionate person full stop. You get to meet him, he's passionate about playing for the Knights, passionate about playing for Fiji and passionate about playing for Queensland... he's the type of player that every club wants and certainly the Origin team needs."
Stone said it was "a fair call" to put Sims into the Origin frame.
"I don't think he's far away. I know it's an elite sort of level when you go into Origin, it's a big step but he showed some good mental resolve I thought," Stone said.
"We had a couple of local blokes who struggled a bit with the pace and had a lot of young blokes and he sort of took it on his shoulders to play big minutes and made a lot of tackles, made a lot of carries. That was a monumental performance to play in the middle like that and get through the amount of work that he did.
"He's a real leader for his age group, just turned 23, he's got a good level head on his shoulders. He's had some good mentors in his older brothers, in Ashton and Tariq, he definitely spoke up at half time and spoke about what we needed to get done in the middle. He challenged the group. He's an impressive young man and doing a good job."