Though the game was played in Arorangi, home team the Cowboys were always at a disadvantage, as they had a shortened week due to playing on Wednesday and their opponents were coming off a huge win over Takuvaine.
This did not show up in their performance as they battled the Eels to a standstill and though the scoreboard did not reflect it, they dominated much of the game.
Their forwards were relentless, hitting every ruck and pushing their opponents back with strong tackling, and gave their back a solid platform to work from.
Thanks to strong work upfront, the backs looked dangerous from set pieces, as Basil Matapo orchestrated a number of brilliant plays that had the Eels defenders scrambling to pick up the proper man.
As they have shown many times this year, however, give the Eels an inch and they’ll run a mile, as a long range try from winger Samu Alafua opened the scoring and undid much of the work the home side had achieved.
Eels’ celebrations were short-lived however, as James Kiriau had his kick in front of the posts charged down, prompting thunderous applause from the 100 or so home fans.
Every time the Cowboys put themselves in a position to respond, they committed an error or were penalised by the referee.
Home fans felt particularly hard done by from the refereeing, as the Cowboys were penalised a large number of times and also received a yellow card, but former Cook Islands rugby captain and coach George George did not think the ref was the issue.
“The ref is just out there doing his job. I don’t think it’s fair for fans to blame the ref for why they lost,” said “The General” after the game.
Despite dominating possession and powerful no.8 Andre Iro scoring a close range try, the Cowboys were down at halftime 8-7 after Kiriau converted a penalty.
The opening of the second half summed up the game for the Eels, as it showed why they are beatable, yet perhaps the most dangerous team in the competition.
It began with an Eels player dropping the kick-off in his own 22, giving the home team a great chance to take the lead for the first time.
However, two minutes later the Eels converted a penalty as an aggressive tackle forced a Cowboys mistake, leading to Avatiu/Nikao quickly making their way into Arorangi’s half with a series of tackle-busting runs.
Alafua later touched down for a second time from another long range effort, and lock Tokerau Raru capped off a great game with his match-clinching try.
Avatiu/Nikao have made that two wins on the trot, and George was not surprised they are heading into the finals as possibly the team to beat.
“Every year the Eels are in contention. It’s just something about the culture in the club that makes them so good every year.”
Despite the loss, George noted that Arorangi had accomplished quite an unusual statistic.
“Now I may be wrong, but I believe that this is the first time that a side has fielded three brothers from two different families,” he said, pointing to Sean, Francis and Brendon Smith, all forwards, and Phillip, Myles and Noah Taio.
- Conor Leathley
Avatiu Eels: 21 - Tries: Samu Alafua (2), Tokerau Raru Penalty: James Kiriau (2)
Arorangi Cowboys: 10 - Try: Andre Iro Conversion: Basil Matapo Penalty: James Strickland