They haven’t beaten the Wallabies since 1954, but this time it seems possible. After the cruel defeat against Wales, the Flying Fijians are looking for the big shot with the quarter-finals at stake
On the approximately 300 islands that make up Fiji – around a hundred of which are inhabited – it will be 3.45 in the morning. But gathered around the rare TVs in each village, there will still be an entire population. Today’s match in Saint Etienne against Australia – kick-off at 5.45pm local time – is worth a final: for the Flying Fijians, winning it, after their debut defeat against Wales, would mean being able to continue to dream of world quarters, achieved twice in history: in the inaugural edition of 1987 and in 1999. Failure would instead mean losing practically all hope. So everyone in Suva and the surrounding area is cheering. The country, thanks to rugby, has celebrated national holidays in the past – such as when the National Seven team won gold at the Rio 2016 Games – and it is not excluded that, in the event of success over the Wallabies, the event will be repeated.
Also because the island national team – despite having slipped from 7th to 9th place in the world rankings after the defeat against Wales – although it continues to count on very limited resources, has rarely promised much. And rarely has it been so dangerous and well prepared thanks to the work of the pragmatic coach Simon Raiwalui, who in February took over from a guru like the New Zealander Vern Cotter. Few other teams, traditionally, know how to put on as much of a show. But now, combined with this innate characteristic, there is a previously unknown concreteness and discipline. This is demonstrated by the success in the last Pacific Nations Cup and, approaching France 2023, an excellent performance against the French team, as well as a sensational success at Twickenham over England, who had never been beaten before. And it cannot be the forced absence of 23-year-old opener Caleb Muntz, who scored 15 points from the pitch in the London match at the end of August, suffering a knee injury shortly before the start of the World Cup, that limits the group’s ambitions. The leap in quality also came thanks to the creation of the Fijian Drua franchise which plays in Super Rugby: there are 18 players in the squad who play in that team. And if in the past the limitations of the national team were also the result of the fact that its players were almost never together, now the confirmation of a block has led to a previously unknown cohesion and consequent collective growth.
It’s a shame for the failed feat last Sunday against the Dragons who, in Bordeaux, were forced into something like 248 tackles to stop the Fijians’ ardor. The Pacific national team, down by 18 points, with time practically up, came close to a coup. Not achieved only due to a macroscopic error by Radradra, despite being among the best on the pitch who, with a prairie in front of him towards the goal which, if transformed, would have reversed the result, committed a sensational forward. The final 32-26 however guaranteed Nayacalevu and his teammates – dominators of possession and territory – a double bonus point, one offensive (4 tries) and one defensive (difference of less than 7 points). But, in case of a flop against Australia, everything will become in vain. The problem is that the balance of the 22 direct clashes is 19 Wallabies successes, a draw and two Fiji victories (the last in 1954…), with a 3-0 in the World Cup matches. Raiwalui mixes the cards between the midfield and counts on a better performance in the static phases. Eddie Jones’ Australia, overcoming Georgia in their debut match, meanwhile ended a streak of five defeats. The success also allowed it to “exchange” position in the world ranking with Fiji, from 9th to 7th place. It relies on experience: the 34-year-old prop James Slipper returns to the starting line-up and, equaling the record of his compatriots George Gregan and Adam Ashley-Cooper, takes part in the fourth Cup. In today’s 23 players, there are six of the seven men on the roster of Fijian origins. By the way: Fiji, unlike its “sisters” Tonga and Samoa, has not taken advantage of the new rules on equivalents. None of his players changed nationality towards the World Cup.
September 17 – 4.31pm
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