12 Jul 2021

All Blacks the winners but Fiji take the honours

7:55 am on 12 July 2021

The All Blacks made it two wins to start their season with a 57-23 victory over Fiji in Dunedin, but it was the visitors performance, and their difficulties in preparing, that proved the story of the match.

Sevu Reece (left) and Eroni Sau.

Sevu Reece (left) and Eroni Sau. Photo: Photosport

Fiji have three players languishing in Australia due to travel restrictions, had to go through two weeks of MIQ and have only had a two training sessions as a full team with several players only getting out of isolation last Wednesday.

However, the Flying Fijians pushed the All Blacks more than the scoreline would suggest last Saturday night and it was an impressive effort by anyone's standards.

Coach Vern Cotter believes they're only scratching the surface of their potential.

"A brave performance...they really threw themselves around the park and never gave up. It's a performance we can build on, because we showed grit, determination, guts, physicality and a few smarts.

"We can progress rapidly."

But to do that Fiji, and Tonga and Samoa, need more tests against tier one nations.

Saturday's match was the first between the All Blacks and Fiji in 10 years.

Cotter said that needs to change.

"If you can get those games more often, if you get to measure yourself against the best teams more often, you will improve. That kind of competition does improve them (the players) and I think they've shown enough in this game to be offered more opportunities to play those teams. I hope so."

The All Blacks coach Ian Foster was hoping Fiji would provide a tougher test than Tonga and he wasn't disappointed, with the visitors cutting the hosts lead to just eight points in the second half.

"They offered a pretty stern challenge...They've got lot of players who are pretty experienced, particularly from overseas and European clubs, who have come together.

"They showed they are great athletes and obviously had moments in that game where they put us under quite a bit of pressure."

The breakdown was on of those areas where Foster concedes Fiji dominated at times, particularly in the first half.

"I don't really think we played with confidence and imposed ourselves in that first 40 enough.

"I think we probably kicked the ball away unnecessarily at times instead of running and putting some phases together and really backing ourself."

The All Blacks would eventually pull away scoring nine tries, four to replacement hooker Dane Coles, who would also like New Zealand to play Fiji more often.

"I reckon it was awesome.

"I've seen a lot of those guys playing over in European teams and some of those guys are awesome.

"It was cool to play, I've never played Fiji before, some big, big humans."

The game wasn't entirely without controversy with Fiji making a last minute decision not to go ahead with a plan to wear jerseys supporting Covid vaccinations, with the county in the grips of an outbreak.

They were supposed to wear shirts emblazoned with "Vaccinate Fiji" on the chest, but chose not to, due to opposition from some of the team.

Fiji Rugby chief executive John O'Connor says the union will talk with players and sponsors to decide the best way to promote the "Vaccinate Fiji" message in next weekend's game.

For coach Cotter it's a complex issue.

"It was sprung on the players quite late in the piece and not a lot of exchange or consultation.

"As you can imagine, it's a delicate subject for some and so it was probably better to just have a clean jersey and then spend some time on how best we want to communicate on this matter and how comfortable the players and everybody are around that communication."

The decision drew criticism from several quarters, but no one was critical of Fiji's on field performance, and they move on to this weekend's second test in Hamilton with confidence, and a full week's build-up.

However Cotter concedes they're still on the hunt for a backup halfback, with the team unable to access the three players stranded in Australia.

"We'll have to buy them New Zealand passports, I'm not sure how we're going to do that.

"We're scouring the country looking for halfbacks. So, if the All Blacks want to lend us one for next weekend we'll take him."

So, again the Fijians will have to overcome a less than ideal preparation for the second test, but with fans and pundits singing their praises, hopefully it won't be another 10 years, before the All Blacks play them again.