April 30, 2022
The Highlanders have cruelly denied Fijian Drua a historic win in their first Super Rugby Pacific match played at home, with a full house at Suva's ANZ Stadium unable to lift their team to victory.
The visitors rebounded from last week's Super Round loss to the Brumbies to clinch a thrilling 27-24 win on Saturday.
The Highlanders didn't hit the front until the 63rd minute when they declined a certain three points after receiving penalty and instead backed themselves to deliver a try from the line-out.
They came up trumps through replacement hooker Rhys Marshall after they drove the ball over the line to take a 25-24 lead before that was extended by Mitchell Hunt's conversion.
In their first season, the Drua played all their home games against Australian teams in Australia due to COVID-19 enforced travel restrictions.
They were given a raucous homecoming with more than 15,000 fans turning out to provide a carnival atmosphere with Mexican waves and horns blowing.
The Fijian faithful didn't have to wait long to celebrate with halfback Frank Lomani scoring in the third minute.
The Highlanders levelled soon after through Sam Gilbert after they worked the ball wide for the winger to flop across the line.
The Drua's second try was special, starting inside their 22 with Vinaya Habosi tip-toeing down the sideline before turning on the burners.
They added a third when Kalaveti Ravouvou dived on to a Teti Tela kick into the in-goal and led 24-17 at halftime.
An early Highlanders penalty in the second half proved crucial in preventing a Fijian fairytale.
Marshall's try was the only five-pointer of the second 40, with the Highlanders staying composed in the face of some relentless Drua attack as they hunted a match-winner.
It was the men from Dunedin's second win of the season, previously beating the other new competition entry in Moana Pasifika.
"That was a full 80 minute effort - a hell of a game and I'm so proud of our boys for sticking in there," Highlanders skipper and halfback Aaron Smith told Stan Sport.
"We knew the Fijians were going to be very dangerous as they're a team who can score out of nothing and they got a couple of early ones but we stuck to our plan."
Drua captain Meli Derenalagi was disappointed they couldn't deliver a first-up win.
"We knew the Highlanders were going to come at us and I'm proud of the effort of the boys, trying to stay competitive and playing 80 minute rugby," he said.
Drua 24 (Tries: Lomani try, Habosi try, Ravouvou try, Cons: Tela 3, Pens: Tela 1) Highlanders 27 (Tries: Gilbert try, Mikaele Tu’u try, Marshall try, Cons: Hunt 3, Pens: Hunt 2). HT: 24-17.
FIJIAN DRUA: 15 Kitione Taliga, 14 Selestino Ravutaumada, 13 Apisalome Vota, 12 Kalaveti Ravouvou, 11 Vinaya Habosi, 10 Teti Tela, 9 Frank Lomani, 8 Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, 7 Meli Derenalagi, 6 Joseva Tamani, 5 Ratu Rotuisolia, 4 Viliame Rarasea, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Mesulame Dolokoto, 1 Haereiti Hetet.
Replacements: 16 Tevita Ikanivere, 17 Timoci Sauvoli, 18 Samuela Tawake, 19 Isoa Nasilasila, 20 Kitione Salawa, 21 Simione Kuruvoli, 22 Onisi Ratave, 23 Kitione Ratu.
HIGHLANDERS: 15 Connor Garden-Bachop, 14 Sam Gilbert, 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 12 Fetuli Paea, 11 Scott Gregory, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Christian Lio-Willie, 5 Sam Caird, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Dan Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Max Hicks, 20 Hugh Renton, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Mosese Dawai.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill