Fiji just did enough to book a spot in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals and deny the Wallabies despite suffering a shock 24-23 defeat to Portugal this morning.
Portugal pulled off a stunner with a try two minutes from the end and a match-winning conversion for a storming finish to the tournament’s pool stage.
Fiji was the last team to qualify for the quarterfinals with a losing bonus point, but the manner of progression was nowhere near what the Flying Fijians, or the rest of the rugby world, were expecting. It was enough though to mean Australia fails to reach the knockout phase for the first time, a remarkable fall from grace after reaching the final in 2015.
It was Portugal’s first Rugby World Cup win and came in the last game of Os Lobos’ — the Wolves’ — second World Cup appearance. Portugal had a golden chance at a breakthrough first win two weeks ago at the same stadium in Toulouse but missed a last-second kick in an 18-18 draw with Georgia.
This time they made the clutch kick and their history.
“It’s incredible,” said flanker Nicolas Martins, one of Portugal’s standout players all tournament. “It’s historic, I’m so happy. It’s the best moment of my life.”
Down 23-17 in the dying minutes, left wing Rodrigo Marta scored the 78th-minute try that turned the World Cup on its head just for a moment, even if the result had no bearing on the final eight teams left in the competition.
But tell the Portuguese that it didn’t meant anything. After flyhalf Jeronimo Portela hoofed the ball out to confirm the victory, Portugal’s players leaped into each other’s arms to celebrate their biggest result ever. Players streamed off the bench to join in.
Coach Patrice Lagisquet, a France great, pumped his arm and had a huge grin across his face.
Fiji will head to a quarter-final against England and likely be the Rugby World Cup’s favourite underdog from here on, but Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui came onto the field afterwards and graciously handed out hugs and congratulations to the Portuguese players to recognize their moment.
Portugal will celebrate all the way home.
“Congratulations to Portugal, they played really well,” Raiwalui said. “Stuck in there once we took the lead. Thought we had it but they scored the try. Fully deserved victory to them.”
Portugal threatened the upset all game, which was helter-skelter from the outset and surprisingly only 3-3 after a dull, nervy first half.
Portugal twice went ahead early in the second half when right wing Raffaele Storti went over in the 45th after a scorching attack for 10-3 and veteran prop Francisco Fernandes ground over from close range to make it 17-10.
Both times Fiji hit back to level, though flanker Levani Botia to make it 10-10 and then replacement prop Mesake Doge to tie it up again at 17-17.
Doge drove over following a period of play where Fiji’s forwards started to gain some dominance and it appeared the Portugal challenge had been subdued. Scrumhalf Frank Lomani kicked penalties in the 74th and 76th minutes to push Fiji to 23-17 and ahead for the first time since the first half. That appeared to be the end of it.
Portugal wasn’t done, and Storti set up Portuguese rugby history when he picked up from a ruck and burst down the short side to catch out the Fijian defense. Two defenders finally closed him down, but he flipped inside for Marta to score.
Portugal still needed the conversion to go over. Scrumhalf Samuel Marques, the regular Portugal kicker, wasn’t on the field when that kick to beat Georgia was missed. This time he was present and nervelessly stroked it through from the right of the poles.
It was 34-year-old Portugal hooker Mike Tadjer’s last game for his country before retirement.
“I can die tomorrow,” he said. “I have retired after this World Cup. To finish like that it is unbelievable for me. For four years we built (towards) this.”
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