Magnificant Fiji generate a Wallabies implosion at Rugby World Cup


Bravo, magnificent Fiji.

One of the great Rugby World Cup performances took place in Saint-Etienne as the inspired islanders generated a Wallabies implosion and blew Pool C wide open.

To call the Flying Fijians’ 22-15 win over Australia an upset victory would be doing them an injustice, as not only were they ranked above the Wallabies on World Rugby’s rankings until last weekend, but such was the quality of their performance at the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard that it would be unjust.

This was a performance of the highest order, when they were playing under the added pressure of their World Cup survival — one that will go down in tournament folklore. The pride that their people back in the Pacific must feel waking up early Monday morning must be extraordinary. Their heroes on the other side of the world were superb, and a kava session or two might be on the way to start the week.

Simply, the Fijians were magnificent in every facet of the game. The deafening roar that erupted when Simon Raiwalui’s team drove over their opponents for a final scrum penalty — from which Frank Lomani missed a penalty that would have denied Australia a potentially vital losing bonus point — was extraordinary.

While this game will be a triumph in Fijian rugby history, it is firmly one of the darkest moments to remember in Australia. The Wallabies have indulged some ugly matches in the past few years, decades even, but this was among their worst as they were defeated in just about every facet of the game, save for some late Fijian wobbles at the lineout.

Australia could not get going. They were dominated at the breakdown where each time the Fijians, both backs and forwards, capitalized on a weak Australian cleanout. The Wallabies kicked dreadfully, too, as they repeatedly handed possession over to their opponents just as they started to apply some pressure around the 22.

In addition, Australia’s discipline was poor. They gave away 18 penalties to Fiji’s seven, with scrum-half Semi Kuruvoli building the first-half scoreboard pressure that the Wallabies couldn’t ever muster after an early Ben Donaldson penalty and a somewhat fortunate Mark Nawaqanitawase try.

Not only was Kuruvoli magnificent from the tee, but so too in general play. Where Australia’s kicking out of hand was horrific, the Fijian No. 9 hit his box kick targets time each time; the ridiculous non-attempt, and breakdown in communication from Carter Gordon and Nawaqanitawase, which led to a vital second-half try to Josua Tusiova summed up the Wallabies’ evening.

Tuisova, along with Kuruvoli, was supreme. The powerhouse inside centre played all over the top of opposite Samu Kerevi, was a brick in defence and carried with authority in the type of effort that makes you wonder how he was ever left on the bench against Wales last week.

A Suliasi Vunivalu try on 68 minutes gave Australia hope of snatching at least a draw, but such a turn of events would have just felt wrong; the Fijians were truly deserving of their seven-point victory — and Australia incredibly lucky to walk away with a losing bonus point.

Earlier, Fiji had dominated the first half, both with their play and through the boot of scrum-half Semi Kuruvoli, who was outstanding. The Fijian Drua product was a perfect 4/4 from the kicking and box-kicked superbly, ensuring that every time Fiji received a restart he kicked them back up field and out of trouble.

Australia, meanwhile, couldn’t wake up after Ben Donaldson’s early penalty goal. The absence of skipper Will Skelton and Taniela Tupou was telling — they could not get any go-forward through the middle of the paddock.

While Tom Hooper and Fraser McReight poked their head through on occasion, and Rob Valetini put his hand up continuously for a carry, just as he has done for the Brumbies, there were no successive line-bending carries and Fiji’s defence was well organized.

The Flying Fijians were also solid at scrum time. They drew a driving maul penalty from the Australians and won their lineout ball right up until the final five minutes of the first half. At that point, the decision to kick to the corner and not back Kuruvoli’s boot from a penalty 15 in from touch, right on the 22, seemed pivotal. The No. 9 had, up to that point, been radar-like from the tee and when the Wallabies picked off their lineout first steal of the match, followed by a second, that decision carried even greater weight.

Australia’s only bright spot of the first half had come from a Nic White box kick, and some quick thinking from both Nawaqanitawase and Samu Kerevi, who worked a quick lineout 1-2 for the Wallabies winger to pick up his second try of the tournament put Australia out to an 8-6.

Even then, the role that lock Richie Arnold had played for the turnover before White’s 50/22, appeared dubious. Every person watching on will have their opinion as to whether the Wallabies lock had pinched the ball before going off his feet, but there was no doubt what the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard crowd thought as they booed the decision, adamant it should have been a penalty to Fiji back inside Australia’s half.

While there was healthy smattering of gold around the stadium, and Wallabies fans had filled various bars on the walk across town from the train station, this was very much a pro-Fiji crowd. Every time the islanders made a break they cheered, and when the Wallabies received a penalty from referee Andrew Brace they jeered — just as they had done for the announcement of Eddie Jones’ name pre-match.

Two games in a row, the loudest jeers of the weekend have been reserved for Jones.

But there was precious little else for Australia to crow about in the first half. Twice they kicked away possession when inside the Fijian’s 30, White and Kerevi the guilty parties, while fly-half Carter Gordon was hammered in midfield, including one time on the counter when he made a half break but then immediately coughed up possession.

So where does this leave Pool C?

Next week’s clash between Wales and Australia in Lyon has suddenly taken on a whole new importance. It was thought that Pool C, of any group in France, could throw up a situation where the favourites to advance could each take one game from each other.

And that is exactly what Australia will be relying on now. They will have to head to the Orange Velodrome knowing anything but a win will likely see them back on a QANTAS flight bound for Sydney, with only a inconsequential clash against Portugal to salvage some measure of pride.

Knowing how bad QANTAS have been going, the airline may be happy to have the Wallabies on board.

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