By Lobsang DS Subirana
Sports Desk, Sep 17 (EFE).- Fiji produced a masterful performance for the Rugby World Cup ages Sunday in Saint-Etienne to beat an innocent Wallabies outfit that lamented its absences, putting the winners straight back into the Pool C quarterfinals race.
The 15-22 victory in France saw the stereotypically carefree Flying Fijians implement a serious and mature gameplan, playing loosely when able to and conservatively when necessary to steal a must-win game that they controlled, not in its totality, but in the key moments.
Australian coach Eddie Jones’ team had suffered the notable injuries of captain Will Skelton and tighthead Taniela Tupou, for whom veteran prop James Slipper had to play on his weaker side of the scrum.
But it was Jones’ men who initially dictated play nonetheless, inaugurating the scoreboard when fullback Ben Donaldson converted a penalty after a high tackle from inside center Josua Tuisova.
Fiji began to probe with a brand of expansive rugby, looking for space in the wide channels from early on. But it was at the sight of their first penalty; and second; and third, that it became obvious this team had attained a level of game management its previous iterations lacked.
Their defense was sturdy, something Wallaby fly-half Carter Gordon found out the painful way when he aimlessly wandered into Eroni Mawi close to Fiji’s 22-meter line and knocked the ball on after a thunderous tackle from the loosehead prop.
They were soon 8-9 up, and not even a clever Australian try from half-Fijian winger Mark Nawaqanitawase, following a quick lineout off a 50:22 kick, seemed to bruise the composure of coach Simon Raiwalui’s men.
Fiji went into the break having dominated territory and possession, pressuring the Wallabies into their half and threatening to score tries until the end of the first 40 minutes. But the hard facts were on the scoreboard, which at that point showed four converted penalties from scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli, who would finish the match on a 100 percent record.
It was early in the second half that Australia’s defense would begin to unravel. Fiji hung a kick that Gordon misjudged and fell graciously to Tuisova, who easily gathered the ball to speed away and score his team’s only try.
Kuruvoli kicked the conversion but went off injured for Frank Lomani in the 47th minute. And the substitute scrum-half kicked three more points to further extend Fiji’s lead, having missed an earlier attempt. Meanwhile, his team played the phases and kept the ball, while any Australian spell of possession seemed brief, hurried and sloppy.
The Wallabies managed to claw back the margin when Australia’s Fijian-born Suli Vunivalu crashed over from close range to bring the score to within a converted try.
This began a telling period of Fiji’s newfound tactical awareness, as both sides engaged in a kicking battle that showed an acute understanding of space, giving Raiwalui’s men a large net territorial gain. Some of their late-game decision making threatened to undo them as it had notoriously done to so many Fiji teams in the past. Balls went loose and there was occasional disorder, but they never lost control.
They endured a last-minute scare when they knocked the ball on at the death, having chosen to play wide instead of picking and going. But they showed character to draw a penalty from the ensuing scrum with the clock in the red. Lomani missed the penalty kick, but Fiji had started celebrating long ago.
In Saint-Etienne, the team seemed to have developed a sober, well-rounded game; controlling the pace and often managing it with mastery, while blending their famous offloading style and risky play with an improved lineout, a frightening scrum and a menacing defensive discipline.
Combined with their wealth of natural athletes and exquisite technique, Fiji’s previously lamented potential was at last culminating into the spectacular rugby force many had dreamed of for decades.
They next face Georgia and Portugal, with a bonus point win over both guaranteeing them a quarterfinal spot. After seeing their performance Sunday; they would be hard to bet against.
Over in Pool B, South Africa met expectations with a dominant 76-0 display in Bordeaux over a poor Romania team that started playing for pride within the first 10 minutes, as the Springboks scored 12 tries to secure a bonus-point win, which leaves them second in the table.
The Oaks never looked to trouble a far superior outfit that touched down with just three minutes on the clock, gave scrum-half Cobus Reinach a hat-trick in 24 minutes, and experimented with players out of position for most of the second half, with three No. 9s taking to the field at one stage.
The litany of tries did however further highlight the lack of a stable kicker for South Africa, as fly-half Damian Willemse looked uncomfortable from the tee, a problem they will need to urgently address before they face pool leaders Ireland on Sep. 24. EFE