SAINT-ETIENNE — Bravo, magnificent Fiji.
One of the great Rugby World Cup performances took place in Saint-Etienne as the inspired islanders generated a Wallabies implosion, blew Pool C wide open, and recorded their first win over Australia in 69 years all in the space of 80 minutes.
To call the Flying Fijians’ 22-15 win over Australia an upset would be doing them an injustice, as not only were they placed 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 simply wouldn’t sit right.
This was a performance of the highest order, which came amid the added pressure of their World Cup survival — it was a triumph that will go down in tournament folklore. Their people will be overflowing with pride as they wake early Monday morning back in the Pacific. 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 nearly every facet of the game. The deafening roar that erupted inside Le Cauldron 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 what may yet be a potentially vital losing bonus point — was extraordinary.
“I’m emotionally drained at the moment,” Fiji coach Simon Rauwalui said. “I’m really proud of the boys. It was a great contest, a great Australian side. We’re Pacific neighbours so we know each other well. It was a great match. It kept us guessing until the end.”
While this game stand out among Fiji’s rugby history, it is conversely one of the darkest moments Australia’s recent rugby past. The Wallabies have indulged some ugly matches in the past few years, decades even, but this was among their worst on record as they were defeated right across the rugby spectrum, save for some late Fijian wobbles at the lineout.
Australia just could not get going. They were obliterate at the breakdown, where the Fijians, both backs and forwards, repeatedly capitalized on a weak Australian cleanout. The Wallabies kicked dreadfully, too, as they handed possession over to their opponents just as they started to apply some pressure around the 22.
Nic White, Samu Kerevi and Jordan Petaia were all guilty of that and the Monday review will make for painful viewing for each player.
In addition to that, 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 off the back of that, pressure 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 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.
But you could namedrop every Fijian, such was the committed performance from numbers 15-1 — and beyond. There were breakdown turnovers and a team-high 14 tackles — without a miss — from Levani Botia; scrum dominance from the front-row and tireless work at the tackle and beyond from the likes of Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Sam Matavesi and Viliame Mata.
A Suliasi Vunivalu try on 68 minutes gave Australia some 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.
“Well, obviously disappointed. We started the game very uncharacteristically, not like us,” Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said. “We’ve been really sharp at the start of games and played with a fair bit of pace and precision and today was sloppy. Now, whether that was the physicality of Fiji and then from that, we had times in the game where we got on the front foot but we struggled to get on the front foot.
“Full congratulations to Fiji. They played really well and it was a deserved victory for them. I’m really pleased for them as a team and we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got Wales next week. The great thing about the World Cup tournament, it’s not the end of the road, we’ve got Wales next week so we need to kick some stones tonight, work out where we can improve quickly and then get on with the game against Wales.”
Earlier, Fiji had dominated the first half, both with their play and through the boot of scrum-half Kuruvoli. The Fijian Drua product was a perfect 4/4 from the tee in the first 40 and box-kicked superbly, ensuring that every time Fiji received a restart he booted them back up field and out of trouble.
Australia, meanwhile, just didn’t wake up after 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. Neither player will be back for next week, and that will be top of Jones’ concerns.
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 so often for the Brumbies in Super Rugby, 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, was curious. The No. 9 had, up to moment, 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 could have carried even greater weight.
As it turned out, it was completely inconsequential; Rauwalui later revealed how hard Kuruvoli had been working with Fiji’s assistant coaches, and the proof was certainly out there on Sunday evening.
Australia’s only bright spot of the first half had come from a Nic White 50/22 kick, and some smart thinking from both Nawaqanitawase and Kerevi, who worked a quick lineout 1-2 for the Wallabies winger to pick up his second try of the tournament and put Australia out to an 8-6 lead.
Even then, the role that lock Richie Arnold had played for the turnover before White’s punt 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 before kick-off, this was very much a pro-Fiji crowd. Every time the islanders made a break, the crowd roared; but any time the Wallabies received a penalty from referee Andrew Brace they jeered — just as they had done for the announcement of Jones’ name pre-match.
Two games in a row, the loudest boos of the weekend have been reserved for the 63-year-old Wallabies coach.
But there was precious little else for Australia to crow about in the first half. Twice they kicked away possession when inside the Fijians’ 30, 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.
Jones again defended Gordon in the post game, as he has done religiously throughout this period, but he may well have to ponder a positional shift for Donaldson and the promotion of Andrew Kellaway to fullback; but that would be admitting his faith in Gordon is wavering, and the coach may not be so keen to admit his call to leave Quade Cooper out of the squad was wrong, too.
“I made the decision to go for a younger team and if that’s the wrong decision then I will be held accountable for that,” Jones replied when it was put to him that his decision to bring so much youth to the World Cup was backfiring. “But I think Australian rugby needs to move on to a younger team. I am prepared to go through some pain to leave Australia with a team capable of doing really well in a World Cup.
“That’s not to say we can’t do it, we’ve had a bit of a setback today but that’s all part of being in a World Cup. I do remember South Africa lost a game and won a World Cup, so funny things have happened.”
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, may throw up a situation where the three teams favoured to advance — Wales, Fiji and Australia — might each take one game from each other, making bonus points critical.
Certainly that was the case for Wales in the 83rd minute against Portugal on Saturday night, and it will again be critical in seven days’ time in Lyon.
And so Australia will head to OL Stadium about an hour up the road from their Saint Etienne base knowing anything but a win will likely see them back on a QANTAS flight bound for Sydney two weeks later, and an inconsequential clash against Portugal to salvage some measure of pride beforehand.
Knowing how bad QANTAS have been back in Australia, the company’s executive board will likely be happy to have the Wallabies on board, at least to take some heat of the national carrier. Still, at this stage, the Wallabies live to fight another week.
The Fijians meanwhile, jumped on their bus and made a shorter journey 15 minutes south to their Best Western Hotel. No glitz, no glamour, just a team content in the fact they had just achieved one of the great wins from their nation’s proud rugby history — an unforgettable World Cup triumph that has put them firmly back in the tournament.