Fiji defeated Australia 22-15 for the first time in 69 years and sent a jolt of joy rippling through the Rugby World Cup today.
The Fijians had to win to stay in the hunt for their first quarterfinal in 16 years, and lived to fight on while putting the heat back on Wales and Australia, who meet next Monday NZT. One of the trio won’t make it out of Pool C.
Famed for being rugby’s greatest ad-libbers, Fiji put the razzle-dazzle away and won in a very un-Fijian traditional way: Breakdown domination, brick-wall defense, and relentless commitment for 80 minutes.
The Fijians were disciplined, composed and clinical in a heavily defensive game of few chances. Flanker Levani Botia and inside back Josua Tuisova led them with three turnovers each.
“I’m emotionally drained,” said Simon Raiwalui, Fiji’s coach only since February. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
This result was not on the scale of Japan beating South Africa in 2015 or that much of an upset. This result was coming. Fiji crushed the Pacific Nations Cup. They pushed France close and toppled England at Twickenham in the warmups.
Fiji came to the Rugby World Cup ranked higher than pool rivals Australia and Wales, and would have beaten Wales last weekend with even an ounce of luck.
“I told the boys, today is our final,” captain Waisea Nayacalevu said. “Today will determine whether we want to go up to the quarters, so the mindset was do or die, do our best, fight to the end and the result will take care of itself.”
Australia has brought to the Rugby World Cup their youngest squad in 20 years, a squad still learning how to win. A Fiji side that has been around the block several times gave the two-time champion Wallabies their first Rugby World Cup loss to a Pacific Island team.
Australia badly missed three key injured players — captain Will Skelton, vice captain Tate McDermott and tighthead Taniela Tupou — but the Fijians had the majority backing of the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard crowd, who cheered every turnover and penalty for Fiji.
And they had lots to cheer.
The Wallabies gave up 18 penalties, 11 at the breakdown. They stole six Fiji lineouts and still never got in a flow.
“They outplayed us at the ruck,” Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said. “For some reason we were just off today. We were a poor version of ourselves. There is some soul searching to do and it makes the Wales game pretty important.”
Fiji put four penalties between the posts to lead 12-8 at halftime thanks to an unexpected goalkicker who enjoyed a dream start. Simione Kuruvoli, who rarely kicks for the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby, was picked ahead of Frank Lomani at scrumhalf and nailed all four of his penalty kicks, plus the sideline conversion of Tuisova’s try.
Kuruvoli’s box kick fell between four Australians and Tuisova grabbed the ball and raced to the line untouched. Kuruvoli’s extras made it 19-8 but he limped off moments later and was replaced by Lomani. Lomani had three goalkicks to put Australia out of sight but nailed only one and it made a tense finish.
Kuruvoli said he’s never kicked five from five before.
“To be honest, nah,” he said. “I normally just do the scrum part and feed the balls but I don’t have the kicking bit. I thank the coaches for trusting me. I was surprised today.”
Fiji has time to celebrate their first win over Australia since 1954 in Sydney. They have a two-week break before meeting Georgia, then finishes against Portugal.
Australia’s two tries, from smart thinking by Fiji-heritaged Mark Nawaqanitawase in the first half and Fiji-born replacement wing Suliasi Vunivalu in the second half, earned a losing bonus point that could be vital.
“Class from Fiji. Mate, it was as expected,” stand-in captain Dave Porecki said. “They’ve got world-class players in the backline and they took advantage in and around the breakdown. We’ve got to lick our wounds and get ourselves up for (Wales), which is easy because it’s a World Cup game.”