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In a dramatic weekend at the Rugby League World Cup, New Zealand and Lebanon were both bounced from the competition by mere two-point margins, while Pacific island nations Fiji and Tonga progressed to the semifinals.
Low Score But High Drama
In what was perhaps the most sensational match of the RLWC 2017 quarterfinals, the highly fancied Kiwis were eliminated by a very passionate and extremely motivated Fiji Bati, who won the match 4-2 in the New Zealand capital of Wellington on Saturday.
Don’t let the scoreline fool you into thinking it was a dour game — it was anything but. Defense ruled as neither side was able to break the other’s resolve to get across the white line, although the offense displayed by both was, at times, scintillating.
Two Fijian penalty goals to just one successful kick by the Kiwis was how the match panned out; however, anyone watching would have been mesmerized by the nonstop action on the field.
Both teams made line breaks, both mounted wave after wave of attack, and both defended stoically.
Fiji's Jarryd Hayne summed it up best: “We slayed a giant.”
After the game there were tears: joyful ones from the Fijians and others of despair from the New Zealand players as the realization sunk in that their World Cup campaign was over.
Fiji advances to the RLWC semifinals, but this time it faces the daunting task of squaring off against tournament favorite and reigning champion Australia this Friday night in Brisbane.
Tonga Makes History
Tonga booked its spot in the RLWC semifinals by outlasting a gritty and surprisingly potent Lebanon team to post a narrow 24-22 victory in Christchurch on Saturday.
This is the first time that Tonga has made it as far as the semis, and the Mate Ma’a had to work overtime to get there.
It was an evenly matched pairing for the entire 80 minutes, as the Lebanese proved they were deserving quarterfinalists.
Indeed, the Cedars could well have won the game if not for the video referee overturning what looked to have been a Lebanon try because of a controversial obstruction on the play.
That aside, it was another competitive and absorbing contest, and few can deny Tonga deserves its place in the semifinals against England this Saturday in Auckland.
The quarterfinal round kicked off with Australia demolishing an underperforming Samoa 46-0 in the northern Australian city of Darwin on Friday.
Toa Samoa came into the World Cup with high expectations but in the end failed to win a game.
They scraped into the playoff rounds by default as they were in a pool that advanced the top three placed teams regardless of their records.
Their cultural display and war dance before kickoff was probably their highlight of the night.
Kangaroos winger Valentine Holmes set a record by scoring five tries in the game, while fullback Billy Slater joined Hayne as the all-time leading try-scorer in World Cup history.
Fan Support Not Enough For PNG
The first round of elimination matches wrapped up with England beating Papua New Guinea 36-6 in Australia’s second-biggest city Melbourne on Sunday.
PNG was the crowd favorite and there were hopes the Kumuls could make it a Pacific trifecta, but it wasn’t to be as the English had other ideas.
The Lions scored first and were never headed, but the truth is they were not overly impressive.
The game was marred by repeated mistakes on both sides of the ball, with both teams unable to complete their sets and missing tackles.
England outside backs Kallum Watkins and Jermaine McGillvary each scored a brace, but the most controversial moment came in the first half when English five-eighth Kevin Brown was briefly knocked out in a heavy tackle yet wasn’t made to undergo an head injury assessment (HIA), which is mandatory for head knocks.
An English player not in the game-day squad saw a replay of the hit on social media at halftime and drew it to the attention of the team doctor, who then assessed Brown and ruled him out for the second half.
Meantime, head coach Wayne Bennett has added spice to the crucial semifinal against Tonga by suggesting the eligibility rule that enabled five players to opt to play for the Tongans instead of the big three needs to be reviewed.
And in a sidebar to the Men's RLWC, Canada made waves in international rugby league by scoring its first-ever win in the Women’s RLWC on Sunday.
The Ravens, playing just their third game of rugby league, downed Papua New Guinea 22-8 in a result that gets them into the mix for the semifinals.
Australia 46, Samoa 0
Tonga 24, Lebanon 22
Fiji 4, New Zealand 2
England 36, PNG 6
— Brian Lowe has been writing about Rugby League and Rugby Union in the USA and worldwide for 20 years. See his latest working covering the Rugby League World Cup here on FloRugby.