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Panthers stun Eels in thriller

Monday 7 August 2023 | Written by Rashneel Kumar | Published in Rugby Union, Sports


Panthers stun Eels in thriller
Tupapa Panthers players and officials with the Rarotonga Club 15s premier men’s trophy at Victoria Park on Saturday. 23080650

The Rarotonga Club 15s premier men’s final witnessed a dramatic and thrilling finish when Tupapa Panthers scored in the final minute to dethrone Avatiu Nikao Eels at Victoria Park.

The Panthers scored in the 79th minute in the corner through their live-wire number 8 Filimoni “Bilson” Laitiavura to beat 2022 champions Avatiu Nikao Eels 13-12 at home on Saturday.

On a wet and slippery field, it was an arm wrestle of a battle with the Panthers looking in control at the halftime break with a deserved 8-3 lead.

However shortly after the half time break and within a five-minute period, two 30 metre penalty goals were kicked in succession by the mastermind Eels first 5/8 Viiga Reupena and the Eels were up 9-8.

The wet and slippery conditions made it difficult for the two teams to maintain possession and execute their set pieces.

However there seemed a momentum shift with the Eels playing with a lot more energy and purpose by kicking to the right places of the field and applying pressure to a flustered-looking Panthers team. The Panthers were down a player, who was sinbinned for a high tackle, in the final quarter of the match.

In the 75th minute of play, Reupena kicked another penalty goal to extend Eels lead to 12-8.

With time running out and against the run of play and from inside their own half, Panthers’ Laitiavura from a broken-play made a sideline break only to be halted short of the try line.

From the five-metre scrum, the Panthers number 8 was able to fight his way over the try line to score the match winning try.

The Eels players and officials were visibly disappointed by the loss.

After the game, Eels coach Clive Nicholas said: “All in all just disappointed a good game was ruined by poor refereeing and officiating and I stand by my club and my players for a dominant performance to be ruined by the officiating.”

“Never seen a ref be overruled by players and one touch judge, never in my 20 years of playing international, national and club level here, in NZ and in Australia.

“We get unfairly done by things like this and it always happens to us like we are literally picked on. Whenever we complain to CIRU or referees, we are always immaturely replied with a ‘if you want to ref, come and ref then’. This is always their hit back at us, very disappointed. I stand my ground on everything said post-match because we’ve had enough.”

Nicholas said he was not targeting the Tupapa players “but I’m pointing my finger directly at officials which was disgusting and disrespectful!”

“We do things professionally these days, our players and coaches around the island do their best to keep our footy alive due to the decline in numbers but to be spat on by this kind of behaviour is not good.”

Cook Islands Rugby Union thanked their “strong and courageous match officials and administration staff” with an open invitation to the “sideline critics/potential referees” to pick up the whistle or flag and be part of the recruitment solution.

Panthers skipper Lua Tua also acknowledged the match officials during the closing ceremony, and said officiating was not an easy job.

Tua congratulated both teams for their performances and hailed his players for fighting until the end to win.

The best players for the Eels were their first 5/8 Reupena, his halves partner James Nand, elusive winger Nathan Nabou and hardworking forwards Josua Motu and Penitito Lio.

For the Panthers, Laitiavura, front rowers Olive Willie and Lua Tua and their abrasive midfielder Rudi Sifa stood out.

The post-match Vodafone Best & Fairest Awards were given to Reupena (Eels) and Laitiavura (Panthers).


Tupapa Panthers: 13 (Tries: Jone Baikebavu & Filimoni Laitiavura. Pen: Daniel Toa) Avatiu Eels: 12 (Pen: Viiga Ruepena [4])