Rugby: Fiji come of age in tense tussle with Boks

By David Leggat

South Africa 37
Fiji 20

The stars are in alignment; all is well in Jake White's world.

Not only are his Springboks in the World Cup semifinals but two of their toughest rivals, New Zealand and Australia, have been rubbed out as the Northern Hemisphere bit back against the wall of noise damning their vastly inferior footballing abilities compared with those uppity southerners.

Add in that the South Africans picked up no injuries in their thrilling win over gallant Fiji at Stade Velodrome in Marseille yesterday, that he has Argentina - who have never beaten South Africa - as the only obstacle to a final against England or France and it's easy to see why the Springbok coach must be thinking someone's smiling on him right now.

He could also be forgiven for not wanting to see any Pacific Islands teams for a while too. Although Samoa were ultimately well beaten, it was a tough, physical scrap for an hour.

Tonga came within one wonky bounce of toppling the Springboks in one of the two games of the tournament and, yesterday, Fiji played out of their skins.

When they scored the second of their two tries, while down to 14 men with the outstanding Seru Rabeni in the sin bin, it was 20-all, 20 minutes to go, the stadium in uproar. Fiji had the underdogs' support as they strove to add a final twist to a remarkable weekend of quarter-final football.

At that point, South African captain John Smit got his team in a huddle and uttered a few timely words.

"He said, 'look there's still 20 minutes to go and remember the look in the Aussies and Kiwis' eyes yesterday'," White said. "Those were special words, said at the right time."

The key moment came shortly after when wing JP Pietersen did remarkably well to hold up Fijian lock Ifereimi Rawaqa as he charged to the line in the lefthand corner.

On small but critical incidents are World Cups won. If Smit lifts the Webb Ellis Cup next week, he might reflect on the importance of Pietersen's superb piece of defensive work.

The Pacific Islands are gone from the cup but the match was a further, final piece of damning evidence that those countries need more help from the International Rugby Board.

It's becoming a hoary old chestnut but they can enlarge the body of senior nations in between World Cups.

Every four years, with players freed of strangling European club obligations, show what they are capable of achieving - and throw Argentina into the mix here as well, the ultimate awkward child the IRB have plonked in a corner and ignored.

Which is why it would be the ultimate slap in the face for the international rulers if Marcelo Loffreda's team move on to win the final.

Fiji's two tries against the Springboks were exhilarating, one a fine run, kick, chase and dive from wing Vilimoni Delasau - "They gave me the ball, I saw the space, I kicked it and it was good" - the other a dazzling breakout with fullback Norman Ligairi and captain and halfback Mosese Rauluni prominent, before wing Sireli Bobo completed it.

But perhaps the important part of the game was not those scintillating moments, which are nothing new with this country's rugby. Rather it was that Fiji came of age, matching it toe to toe with one of the game's heavy hitters and going the distance.

Just as Tonga did and Samoa have done. There's a point to be taken there, if only the IRB have the will and desire to grab it.

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