(Suva, Fiji) 25 July 1998 -- A pair of opportunistic tries from wing Fero Lasagavibau outshined stellar American defensive work, lifting favored Fiji to an 18-9 victory over the touring United States.
With four players returning from injury--two playing for the first time in 1998--the US jumped to a first-half lead and turned in a gritty, 80-minute performance against professional-laden Fiji. But the Eagles slipped up twice, and couldn't muster enough offense from its much-revised lineup to pull off a second-half comeback in front of an estimated 22,000 at the National Rugby Ground.
Led by the new halfback pairing of Britt Howard and Mark Williams and also first-year flanker Fifita Mounga, the Eagles took a 6-5 halftime lead on the strength of tenacious defense and possession kept in hand. Two Williams penalty goals sandwiched Lasagavibau's first score.
Fiji grabbed the advantage during a three-minute second-half flurry, when flyhalf Nicky Little kicked a penalty goal and the US coughed up the restart, for the speedy hosts to seize the advantage and send Lasagavibau away for his second tally.
Several times the US looked like closing the 15-6 gap, but ironically a lineout unit that earlier stole some Fijian ball now conceded valuable possession. Williams's third penalty at the 60-minute mark brought the Eagles within striking distance, but replacement flyhalf (and 7s wizard) Waisale Serevi's 77th-minute penalty closed out the evening's scoring.
Notwithstanding opponents seasoned in Southern hemisphere club and Super 12 matches, all four of the returned US starters--prop John McBride, centers Ray Green and Juan Grobler, and wing Brian Hightower--played up to scratch and will likely be included in the squad for next month's Rugby World Cup qualifiers. Green and Grobler were particularly stout in midfield defense. So too was Britt Howard, starting his first test match.
For Fiji, it was a long night as the US recovered its defensive form of recent years. The offensive-minded Polynesian islanders were never able to get rolling, as in previous wins over Tonga and Scotland, who surrendered 7 tries (3 to Lasagavibau) and 51 points. In Fiji's only defeat this summer, Five Nations champion France limited the hosts to 9 points.
"It was a very brave team performance, and there were some outstanding indvidual efforts," US coach Jack Clark said after the match. "We set out to play good defense and to minimize turnovers, and we accomplished that today against a very professional team.
"Obviously we're disappointed not to have won the test, but our preparation for Rugby World Cup has been excellent, and our selections for the qualifiers will be much easier."
Final: Fiji 18 United States 9 (halftime, United States 6-5)
Fiji: Tries: Fero Lasagavibau (2)
Cons: Nicky Little
Pens: Nicky Little, Waisale Serevi
United States: Pens: Mark Williams (3)
Referee: Scott Young (Australia)