Fijians players perform the Cibi before the Rugby World Cup Pool C match between Australia and Fiji in Saint-Etienne, France, 17 September 2023. EFE-EPA/YOAN VALAT/FILE

Fiji grind past Georgia, edge closer to Rugby World Cup QFs

By Lobsang DS Subirana

Sports Desk, Sep 30 (EFE).- With the clock in red, a loose ball teetering over their five-meter line and a desperate footrace to reach it, Fiji held their breaths.

Many had been the scares throughout a breathless match, vast the disappointments of past world cup campaigns and massive the expectations on a team that made history by beating Australia just a fortnight before.

“Rugby is rugby, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fiji’s Levani Botia said after the game.

And what happened must have pleased the openside flanker as he looked on impotently, when fullback Ilaisa Droasese won the sprint against Georgian fly-half Luka Matkava and the match for the Flying Fijians.

Coach Simon Raiwalui’s men beat Georgia 17-12 on Sunday in France at the Rugby World Cup and edged ever closer to qualifying for the tournament’s quarterfinals, in a match that Fiji trailed by nine points at half time and exposed their old lineout problems anew.

And yet, they now sit second in Pool C, needing only a losing bonus point from their fixture against Portugal next weekend to make the knockout stages for the first time in 16 years.

Georgia controlled the early passages of play, dominating both territory and possession in Fiji’s half. They fired their first warning when a backline move at the edge of the Fiji 22-meter-line created a two-on-one that openside winger Akaki Tabutsadze knocked on just meters from the line.

The Pacific Islanders looked hurried and kicked erratically, unable to clear their lines as they failed to find touch time and again. The Lelos, on the other hand, reaped the reward for their good work, as Matkava put his team three points up when Botia went off his feet at a ruck.

Georgia, who had already come into the match with the loss of No. 8 Beka Gorgadze, suffered another two injury blows to their pack, when hooker Tengizi Zamtaradze and lock Lasha Jaiani left the field within five minutes from each other.

But it didn’t motivate Fiji, who missed a penalty in front of the posts, as scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli ended his 100-percent kicking record when the ball sailed wide to the right. At the other end, Georgian blindside winger Davit Niniashvili scored twice from over the halfway line to extend the Lelos’ lead yet again.

Fiji’s errors compounded, blighting their red-zone efficiency despite sustained possession spells in the opposition’s 22-meter area. This was epitomized by a sprint from openside winger Selestino Ravutaumada, who carried from just inside Georgia’s half to the five-meter line, before the ensuing passage of play resulted in a knock-on.

Their lineout began to misfire, with Raiwalui’s men winning just over half of their throws, and even as play became loose – which Fiji would have normally welcomed – Georgia rose to the occasion with some flair of their own.

Captain Waisea Nayacalevu put Droasese in space with an offload close to the halfway line and the fullback darted infield, where Niniashvili tackled him near the 22-meter line. Legs swung at the ensuing breakdown until the pill was thumped back deep into Fiji’s half, where possession fell to Tabutsadze after a scramble for the ball. He ran in a try – just after English referee Karl Dickson had stopped play for a forward pass.

The message from coach Levan Maisashvili’s men was clear: they were going to fight fire with fire if need be, and as the second half began, Georgia threatened to spread the blaze.

Fiji’s talismanic blindside winger Semi Radradra saw a yellow card following a deliberate knock-on, which the Lelos exploited by flinging the ball wide to Niniashvili, who stepped inside and was only just stopped short of the line.

“To be fair to Georgia, they controlled that first half and potentially could have gone into half time with a bigger score,” Raiwalui said during his post-match press conference. “We needed to match them better.” And match them they would.

The Georgian winger would rue his missed chance almost immediately, as Fiji began finding their footing at the other end of the field.

Substitute scrum-half Frank Lomani threaded a long ball off a five-meter ruck to center Josua Tuisova, who quickly passed it wide for Nayacalevu to finish acrobatically in the corner. Lomani curled in the conversion and brought his team to within two, as an air of inevitability began to permeate the Stade de Bordeaux.

It wasn’t long before the Flying Fijians compounded the pressure on Georgia’s half to draw a penalty that Lomani only just converted, despite wildly miskicking the ball. It was a symbolic score that put the island nation ahead for the first time, and it wasn’t long before they consolidated their lead.

“I think one thing about us Fijians is, we love to play the ball, keep the ball alive,” Botia said. “We trust each other.” And trust he did.

The flanker picked up a loose ball on the right side just over the Lelos’ 10-meter line, making a 20-meter carry, drawing in four Georgian defenders and offloading beautifully to substitute winger Vinaya Habosi, who cut inside to score near the uprights.

But Maisashvili’s team continued pressing. Matvaka converted a penalty with seconds on the clock to secure a losing bonus point and his team received the ball from the restart. A try at the death could win them the match.

The 80-minute mark passed. Georgia found Tabutsadze on the left wing. He carried to the Fijian 10-meter line, threaded a probing kick in behind the defense; and sparked the contest of speedsters won by Droasese, who hurriedly booted the ball out on the run to end the game. EFE