Fiji avoided a mega shock at the Rugby World Cup by coming back from 9-0 down with half an hour to play to beat Georgia 17-12 this morning.
Captain Waisea Nayacalevu began the Fijian fightback with a 51st-minute try deftly finished with inches to spare in the left corner. Replacement Vinaya Habosi finally subdued the Georgians when he burst onto an offload from flanker Levani Botia with 12 minutes to go to make it 17-9.
Georgia still had enough in the tank to kick a very late penalty and chase what would have been a scinitillating victory right at the death, when replacement Gela Aprasidze’s breakout and kick ahead was desperately snuffed out by Fiji fullback Ilaisa Droasese. Droasese chased back, hoofed the ball over the dead ball line and collapsed in exhaustion, as did pretty much everyone else on the field.
The result was still a surprise of sorts after Fiji was expected to fly through the game in Bordeaux with a winning bonus point to qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007. That didn’t happen and the win with no bonus point means Fiji has to wait until next weekend to seal its place in the knockout stage in its final Pool C game against another underdog, Portugal. The result also kept alive Australia’s slim hopes.
Georgia’s early lead came from three first-half penalties, one from flyhalf Luka Matkava and two long-range shots by winger Davit Niniashvili.
Despite losing two players very early to injury, the Georgians were heroic in defense in the face of waves of Fijian attacks at points and came close to what would have been their most famous victory at a World Cup.
Nayacalevu’s try — while Fiji was down to 14 men with wing Semi Radradra in the sin-bin — saw the persistent Fijians finally start to get reward for their adventure.
Habosi made it safe when a ball was shovelled down the Fijian backline, with one pass through the legs, before Botia burst through to carry deep into the Georgia 22. He flicked the ball up as four Georgians tackled him and Habosi was on his shoulder and away to score with a flying dive.
Fiji finished with 14 men after center Josua Tuisova was shown a yellow card for a head-on-head clash attempting to tackle Georgia fullback Miriani Modebadze in the final, chaotic moments, with Modebadze changing direction suddenly to contribute to the collision.
Fiji went for consistency in selection for a Rugby World Cup game against Georgia that could put the popular Pacific islanders on the cusp of the quarterfinals.
Everyone’s favorite underdog made just one change to the 15 that started and upset Australia 22-15 just under two weeks ago.
Selesitino Ravutaumada is in at right wing for Jiuta Wainiqolo, who has an ankle injury. On the bench, prop Samu Tawake replaces Mesake Doge, who went through a head injury assessment after the Australia game.
Otherwise, it’s the same lineup that sent joy through the Rugby World Cup by beating the Wallabies to move into prime position for a trip to the last eight for the first time in 16 years, which would likely be the tournament’s top feel-good story.
Coach Simon Raiwalui, who played in France during his career, said the Fijians noticed the love they’re getting from the home crowds and welcomed it.
“We definitely feel the support, you can hear it at the stadiums and we’re very appreciative,” Raiwalui said. “It’s got to do with how the boys play, the spirit that they play in.”
Fiji’s task is fairly simple. Victories over Georgia and then Portugal, results that are expected, would put the Fijians into the quarters and Australia out.
It would probably be a quarterfinal against former champion England, a matchup that might have been seen as a stretch for the Fijians previously but not now, not after beating the English in a warmup before the World Cup, then pushing Wales to the very brink to start the World Cup before the victory over Australia, another former champion.
A semifinal place would be historic for the Fijians. They can’t get ahead of themselves.
“We all know Georgia are a tough team, we know what they can bring physically, especially on the front foot,” Fiji wing Semi Radradra said. “So our aim is to weather the storm, to match their physicality as well. We know it’s going to be hard, we have to stick to our structure and hopefully we can wear them down.”
Also, Georgia is stinging from an 18-18 draw with Portugal, its great rival in the second tier of European rugby. Portugal might have even won that epic tussle if fullback Nuno Guedes had landed a last-second penalty.
In response, Georgia coach Levan Maisashvili made a sweeping seven changes to his starting 15, including bringing back scrumhalf Vasil Lobzhanidze and flyhalf Luka Matkava, who started in the loss to Australia. Three of the changes are in the pack, Georgia’s strength, with No. 8 Beka Gorgadze and hooker Shalva Mamukashvili unavailable with injury. Prop Mikheil Nariashvili takes over as captain.
Georgia’s players took some time to get over not beating Portugal, Maisashvili said.
“Yes, obviously any result other than winning against Portugal would be the same as a defeat. It had an impact on the players, on myself, it wasn’t pleasant,” he said. “It was difficult to make an analysis but we have had this match analysed and we all know that in rugby it’s a fight and every time you fall down, you have to get back on track.
“So that has given us even more motivation for the next match, and everything we could not do against Portugal, we are going to do against Fiji.”
Played 7 times: Fiji won 4, Georgia 1, two draws
Fiji $1.11 Georgia $6
How to watch
Sky Sport 1 from 4.45am Sunday
Fiji 31 Georgia 20
Fiji: Ilaisa Droasese, Selesitino Ravutaumada, Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Teti Tela, Simione Kuruvoli; Viliame Mata, Levani Botia, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Isoa Nasilasila, Luke Tagi, Samuel Matavesi, Eroni Mawi. Reserves: Tevita Ikanivere, Peni Ravai, Samu Tawake, Temo Mayanavanua, Albert Tuisue, Frank Lomani, Vilimoni Botitu, Vinaya Habosi.
Georgia: Miriani Modebadze, Akaki Tabutsadze, Demur Tapladze, Giorgi Kveseladze, Davit Niniashvili, Luka Matkava, Vasil Lobzhanidze; Tornike Jalagonia, Beka Saginadze, Mikheil Gachechiladze, Konstantine Mikautadze, Lasha Jaiani, Beka Gigashvili, Tengizi Zamtaradze, Mikheil Nariashvili (captain). Reserves: Luka Nioradze, Nika Abuladze, Irakli Aptsiauri, Nodar Cheishvili, Luka Ivanishvili, Gela Aprasidze, Tedo Abzhandadze, Tornike Kakhoidze.
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