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Last-gasp penalty foils Malta

Matthew Mirabelli seeking a way through for Malta yesterday.

Matthew Mirabelli seeking a way through for Malta yesterday.

Malta 16
Croatia 18

Malta suffered a heart-breaking defeat to a strong Croatia side in their opening Nations Cup Division 2B qualifier yesterday.

In front of a packed Hibs Ground, Damien Neill's men looked to have completed a remarkable comeback when debutant Jarrod Sammut scored a penalty to put the hosts 16-15 ahead with only one minute of stoppage time to play.

However, all the good work was thrown out of the window a few seconds later when the Maltese conceded a penalty and Ivan Resetar made no mistake to hand his team a third successive win over Malta.

"It was a stupid mistake in the key moment of the match and experienced teams like Croatia make you pay dearly for that," a distraught Neill told The Sunday Times soon after the match.

"Generally, it was not our best performance. We had several new faces in the team and that showed in our play. Our possession was very poor, conceding too many knock-ons in attack and lost several good openings to finish off Croatia."

Neill said that it was important for the players to put this setback behind them and focus on next weekend's match in Sweden.

"We must forget about this match and start thinking on Sweden," Neill remarked.

"I'm sure the players will be keen to make up for this setback against the Swedes but it won't be easy. Sweden have just been promoted to Division 2B and they have most of their players in the UK. But we must return home with a good result."

Neill included four new faces in his formation. Rugby League player Sammut, Matthew Mirabelli, Michael Jarrett and Ashley Spencer were all handed their debut.

The Maltese took time to settle down and poor defending from Sammut proved costly as Croatia won a scrum two metres out and Vedrain Pomper forced his way through to score the opening try.

Veceslav Holjevac scored the conversion to put the visitors 7-0 ahead.

Malta were struggling with possession as the Croats' continuous pressing was allowing them little space to manoeuvre. In fact, the Maltese did not score their first points until the 38th minute when after two missed attempts, Sammut finally hit the target from a penalty to bridge the gap to 7-3.

Barely, a minute later, the hosts struck again when scrum-half Mirabelli stole possession, opening the way for Sammut to break through before setting up Lee Culnane for a try. Sammut's conversion put Malta 10-7 up at the interval.

Croatia levelled soon after the restart as Holjevac scored a central penalty. Then, Resetar was sin-binned for 10 minutes but that did not stop Croatia from taking a 15-10 lead. Dusan Hauaraia concluded a swift break for another try.

Sammut, Malta's top scorer with 11 points, was the most dangerous player with his runs and on 65 minutes won a penalty that he himself converted to bridge the gap to 15-13.

With time ticking away, Malta staged a late rally and seemed to have struck a winner when Sammut converted another penalty to put them 16-15 ahead.

But there was more drama in store as when play resumed Croatia won a penalty themselves with less than a minute to play. Resetar made no mistake much to the disbelief of the home crowd.

Malta
I. Borda, H. Collins, K. Mason, C. Diamantino, D. Psaila, M. McArdle, P. Calgaro, G. Kennedy, M. Mirabelli, M. Jarrett, O. Sacco, D. Busuttil, D. Felice, L. Culnane 5, J. Sammut 11. Subs used: C. Cassar, A. Bartolo, M. Bonavia, J. Finlason.

Croatia
T. Buzov, G. Culic, P. Nola, M. Nola, N. Mracevic, V. Pomper 5, T. Gomuzak, J. Lovreta, J. Dedic, V. Holjevac 10 S. Sekovanec, T. Burazin, I. Resetar 3, N. Jurisic, D. Hakaraia. Subs used: I. Rubelj, S. Slijepjeciv, B. Blazevic, T. Dumancic.

Referee: M. Damasco (Italy).

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