Fiji were left to rue what could have been after seeing a second-half lead evaporate inside the Sapporo Dome due to a rampant fightback from Australia.
The Flying Fijians exploded out of the blocks to threaten the first shock of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which began in style for home fans as Japan recorded a comfortable victory over Russia on Friday.
But this was all about the first instalment of ‘Super Saturday’, and with France vs Argentina and New Zealand vs South Africa to follow, the Pool D opener did not disappoint.
Fiji were leading by the third minute, scored their first try after seven minutes and, at one stage, lead 21-12 with just 30 minutes remaining on the clock.
But by then, their tank was well and truly empty, and four swift tries in 16 devastating minutes – 10 of which saw Fiji down to 14 men – clinched victory for the Wallabies.
Much had been expected of Fiji’s powerhouse wings Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova, and rightly so. The pair were figureheads in their electric start, and Radradra, the Bordeaux back, had clearly taken a liking to Reece Hodge. Not once but twice Radradra smashed through the Australian wing, and the Pacific Islanders’ all-action start quickly brought a penalty for Volavola to successfully kick.
However, it was the powerhouse Clermont Auvergne flanker, Peceli Yato that was doing the damage.
The Wallabies had not woken up and it cost them. Fiji were displaying a desire to attack from all areas – no surprise given their history and Sevens-style influence – and the opening try stemmed from a break from their own half.
The ball was whipped across the back line to Tuisova, who barged through – you guessed it – Hodge and released outside centre Waisea Nayacalevu, another prominent name in the opening quarter. He timed his pass perfectly to Yato, who galloped over for the opening try of the game – swan dive and all.
Australia has finally woken up once they were 8-0 down, with Michael Hooper making the most of their scrum dominance to collect from Nic White and somehow get over the line thanks to the extra shove from his teammates. But Volavola was keeping the scoreboard ticking over with three consecutive penalties, and Fiji were lighting up the park with Yato inspiring their display.
So how do you stop the Fijians? One option is to knock them out of the game, and that’s what Australia did. When Yato took aim from a short lineout at Hodge once again, the wing stopped the flanker with an obvious no-arm hit. The contact sent Hodge flying, but it forced Yato out of the match as he failed a head-injury assessment.
By that point, were ahead 14-7, only for Australia to hit back before the break as a neat move saw James O’Connor take a pass from Christian Lealiifano and quickly ship it on to Kurtley Beale, who unselfishly sent Hodge over in the corner.
The question lingered though: should Hodge have been on the field at all?
Fears that Fiji would run out of gas looked to dissipated after half-time when sloppy play from the Wallabies saw Lealiifano fail to collect a loose pass and allow Nayacalevu to collect and run it home from halfway. With Volavola’s conversion, Fiji lead 21-12 and dared to dream.
But as the game neared the final quarter, Australia finally started to assert their set-piece dominance that they had not utilised until now. Penalty after penalty went to the corner after Hodge successfully kicked one at goal, and eventually the breach came as hooker Silatolu Latu went over at the back of the driving maul. A few minutes later, Fiji infringed once too many times and Levani Botia was sent to the sin-bin, giving Australia all the ingredients they needed to pull away.
The pack repeated their lineout drive to give Latu his second score in five minutes, before Samu Kerevi powered past Radradra to score after a similar driving maul had come up short. By the time a loose kick allowed replacement Dane Haylett-Petty to tee up the wing Marika Koroibete to run in Australia’s sixth try from long distance, the game had gone for Fiji, though it wasn’t forgotten that 20 points had been scored by players who were born in the Pacific Islands, with a further eight from a player who could have seen red.
But as it was, the result went the way of the Wallabies as expected, just perhaps not the way it was expected. They’ll have eight days to prepare to face Wales, which could well prove the shootout for top spot in Pool D, and after looking to come through this encounter unscathed, the way they grew in the second half may just suggest they will be a team to look out for come the business end.
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