MALTA: D. Halliday, H. Collins, A. Harvey, D. Deguara, D. Cerketa, D. Apsee, L. Watts, T. Holloway, T. Quarendon 5, R. Gum, C. Dudman, R. Holloway 5, J. Debattista, J. Kirk 8.
Subs used: B. Borg.
CROATIA: I. Miljak, D. Brecic, I. Biskic, J. Brajkovic 5, M. Buljac, S. Owen, D. Rowe, J. Newton 8, L. Rosso, M. Grcic, N. Jurisic, S. Majkic 5, M. Vlajcevic, D. Plazbibat.
Subs used: I. Peric, V. Rudic, F. Perica, F. Hasija.
The Malta Rugby national team topped the Conference 1 South for a third consecutive time in dramatic fashion as a late James Kirk penalty earned them a hard-fought 18-all draw against Croatia at the Hibernians Stadium, on Saturday.
The result left Malta and Croatia tied in top spot on 16 points but the Maltese were declared as group winners as they ended with a better points’ difference to move onto a promotion play-off to the Trophy Division against either Sweden or Ukraine.
The Maltese were made to fight for a play-off berth by the Croatians who put on a strong showing in the first half but could only go into the interval with a three-point lead.
Neill’s boys kept their composure, though and roared on by a big Maltese crowd, they managed to exploit Croatia’s deficiencies at the right time to ensure they preserve their three-year unbeaten home record.
Croatia squandered the chance to open the score in the early stages when Jason Newton failed to convert a penalty kick.
That miss came back to haunt the visitors swiftly as Malta broke the stalemate. Robert Holloway charged his way past his markers and touched the ball over the goalline for the hosts’ first try. Kirk missed the conversion to leave Malta 5-0 ahead.
Croatia staged a solid reaction and found a way to register their first try through Joshua Brajkovic, who profited from a well-organised scrum by his team and this time, Newton was not to be denied as his second kick of the game meant that Croatia took a two-point lead – 7-5.
The Croatians were clearly proving to be Malta’s biggest challenge in this Conference, as their skill and structure was giving a hard time for the Maltese to regain possession.
Their ability to remain in possession close to the goal-line helped them earn a penalty kick with Newton converting his second straight kick to help his side open a five-point lead – 10-5.
Moments later, the Maltese worked the ball well as they were awarded a penalty kick. This time, Kirk successfully pushed the ball in between the posts to cut the deficit to two points as the Maltese were now chasing the game 10-8.
With the game nearing half-time, Croatia remained consistent in their intensity but they missed the chance to further extend their lead when Newton missed from a penalty.
On the restart, it was still the Croatians that were piling pressure on the Maltese and they made it count through Srdan Majkic who blasted past his markers as Croatia increased their lead to 15-8.
It felt like Malta needed a moment of quality to find a breakthrough in this game and that what Toby Quarendon provided midway in the second half. He recovered the ball in the middle of the park and darted towards the goal-line, with Kirk transforming the conversion to put Malta on level term at 15-all.
Neill’s clan looked galvanised but it was the Croatians who regained their lead through a Newton penalty 18-15.
Here the Maltese were facing a race against time to salvage the match.
They piled up the pressure on the Croatian defence and they had to wait until two minutes from time to salvage the match when Kirk kicked the ball in from a penalty to seal a dramatic 18-18 draw that kept them on course for promotion.
Standings: 1. Malta (3-1-0) 16; 2. Croatia (3-1-0) 16; 3. Israel (2-0-2) 11; 4. Cyprus (1-0-3) 4; 5. Bosnia and Herzegovina (0-0-4) 1.
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