SULIASU VUNIVALU scored a second-half hat-trick in just eight minutes to send Fiji sailing through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Whatever Fiji coach Mick Potter said to his side at half time quite clearly worked as they blitzed an Italy team who had looked promising in the first.
It was the first real test for the Bati – who had scored 130 points in their first two matches – and they struggled to get to grips with Italy in the first half, but ran in five second-half tries to ease through.
The Bati look to be real contenders as they now prepare for a quarter-final showdown with either New Zealand or Tonga. But with the likes of Vunivalu and Jarryd Hayne in their ranks, Fiji stand every chance of making it through to the semi’s.
The Azzurri needed to win the game by 45 points, which was never going to happen against the Bati warriors, but they put up a good fight.
It was by no means a free-flowing game we have come to enjoy watching Fiji, but they ultimately outclassed Italy.
Both sides struggled to get a foothold in an error-strewn first half, which saw 16 penalties in the opening 40 minutes.
Despite the game remaining scoreless until the 19th minute, the half had a bit of everything – handbags, three yellow cards, two disallowed tries and eventually three scores.
Italy’s Jayden Walker was sent to the sin bin after just 11 minutes for a professional foul in the ruck, and it was bound to happen after five penalties in five minutes.
But Fiji couldn’t utilise their extra-man advantage and instead it was the Azzurri who were first on the scoreboard.
Josh Mantellato was on the end of a looping pass from Terry Campese, who was playing his last game in the Italy blue. The winger was unable to convert his own try but the Italians were happy to be in the driving seat.
That try seemed to spark the Azzurri into life as they started to pressure Fiji’s defence and perhaps played their best when they were a man down.
Though they didn’t make their pressure count, and the Bati were able to take the lead through skipper Kevin Naiqama.
Italy winger Mantellato was unable to gather a Hayne kick and the Fiji full-back gathered the ball to scoot over next to the posts. Apisai Koroisau converted to give the Bati a two-point cushion.
Then the game started to unravel – if it hadn’t already – when Joe Tramontana and Hayne were both shown yellow.
Tramontana had thrown a punch in the ruck, which Hayne noticed and took an obvious dislike to. He ran in and was sin binned for his efforts.
It was 12 against 12 and the Bati who earned an eight-point cushion going into the break. Henry Raiwalui evaded the Azzurri defence with a show-and-go, and nipped in under the posts with Koroisau duly converting.
Before Hayne and Tramontana came back on, Italy had notched the first score of the second half with a sensational finish.
Campese defied his age and showed he still had the speed and awareness to set up Mark Minichiello, who offloaded and Cerruto kicked upfield before Nathan Milone gathered his own kick forward and crossed under the posts. Mantellato slotted the conversion to bring the Azzurri to within two points.
But 10 minutes later a moment of brilliance from the Bati set them on their rampage.
Naiqama had produced a try-saving tackle on Cerruto, knocking the ball from his grasp, and Fiji then raided downfield with Hayne quickly playing it to Raiwalui who set up Brayden Williame for a try.
For all of Italy’s strong work, Fiji had finally stepped up a gear and Vunivalu moved clear at the top of the try-scoring charts – now having notched eight tries in the competition.
The 6ft 4ins winger scored a hat-trick in just eight minutes as the Bati really took control.
Italy couldn’t handle the flowing passing and kicking game from Hayne, despite having been so promising in the first half.
Marcelo Montoya finished off the scoring for Fiji and Hayne was denied a try – after a storming performance all game – for a forward pass.
A classy second-half showing will have set the Bati up perfectly for their quarter-final match.
Photo: NRL Photos