It was close to the most intense game of the Rugby League World Cup tournament, the Irish and Fijian teams going hammer and tong for near 80 minutes. By the time the classy Fiji side had the match beyond doubt, there were casualties everywhere – with both sides losing players at various stages.
In the end, it was an unusually patient Fiji that did enough to break through the impressive Irish defence to get away to a final 30-14 win.
The singing and dancing Fijian officials face a massive task ahead, now due to take on world champions Australia at Sydney on Sunday.
But such was the passion and aggression the Fijians showed tonight, if they can continue to remain patient and fire up – the Australians could be put off their game. While boasting a superstar lineup across the park, the Kangaroos no longer possess a Gordon Tallis or similar player that can stand in the trenches if a neutral referee lets things slide that Ashley Klein did tonight. Maybe only a Paul Gallen can truly standup to the physical presence that Fiji showed tonight in a gutsy affair against an equally gallant Irish side.
But Fiji clearly were overjoyed by their biggest achievement since receiving full international League status in 1995.
Taking home a decent paycheque by making the semi finals – a full $225,000 more than Ireland receives – will be a massive lift for Fiji where rugby league has been active for 16 years but has never threatened rugby union in popularity.
A World Cup semi-final appearance is not a bad effort from a team boasting five park footballers and several fringe NRL players.
But there was plenty of kudos also for Ireland which held Fiji to 12-10 at half-time before pure weight of possession – and some trademark Bati brilliance – took their toll.
Ireland received a not so subtle reminder that they were minnows when they flew out to their second World Cup in cattle class – with England travelling in business on the same flight.
But the Wolfhounds have showed plenty of bite Down Under, pressuring the world body to include Ireland in a northern hemisphere tournament next year also boasting Australia, New Zealand and England.
However, the Blarney Army had little to cheer about among the disappointing 8,224-strong crowd in the second half tonight after Fiji scored three unanswered tries.
After holding on to the half-time lead despite a late try by Ireland skipper Scott Grix, Fiji poured on the pressure, at one stage enjoying four straight sets of six.
Something had to give and lock Jason Bakuya (55th minute) and Jarryd Hayne (66th) crossed before wing sensation Akuila Uate bagged his second in the 76th.
Not to be outdone, Ireland winger Damien Blanch capped a sensational tournament by crossing for his second of the night – and fifth of the tournament – with a minute left on the clock.
Former Penrith lower grader Blanch is contracted to English club Wakefield but is looking for an NRL offer – he may not have to wait too much longer after his Cup effort.
The England-based Australian became the first Irish player to score a hat-trick at a World Cup in the Wolfhounds’ 22-20 opening round loss to Tonga.
And he added to his show reel when he opened his account in this match.
He dummied and stepped 40m to leave the likes of Parramatta sensation Hayne in his wake to score in the 8th minute and help lock up the scores at 6-6.
Fiji’s plight was not helped by losing prop Iowane Divavesi to a two match ban for tripping just hours before his team ran out against Ireland.