Fortunes change as quickly as the wind at the Rugby World Cup. Fiji, who needed to beat Australia to have a chance of making the quarter‑finals, did exactly that, 22-15, and now face the easiest route through Pool C to the knockout rounds. They have a week off, then back-to-back matches against Georgia and Portugal.
Australia, on the other hand, face what their head coach, Eddie Jones, had called a “do-or-die” game of their own, against Wales in Lyon on Sunday. And as Jones said himself, they will need to improve if they are going to get through it.
Worse luck, they will be without their captain, Will Skelton, who finally withdrew injured from this match an hour before kick-off. Jones had wanted to give him every chance to play, but it was an open secret that he was never going to.
It was not just Fiji’s first win against Australia in the World Cup, but their first of any sort at all since they beat them by two points at the SCG way back in 1954. Given that, the surprising thing was Australia never looked close to winning this one.
“We were sloppy,” Jones said. He put it down to Fiji’s physicality. In a move that will ring familiar with England fans, he apologised, and said he took “full responsibility” for the defeat. He had been booed, loudly, by the French crowd. “I probably deserved more after that,” he said. “They should be throwing baguettes or croissants.”
Fiji did not over-run Australia so much as they just shut them out of the match. They were sharper in their decision making, stronger in the set‑pieces, and more disciplined around the field. Australia conceded 18 penalties, which allowed Fiji’s young scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli to control the score with his pinpoint goal kicking. Kuruvoli, who had barely ever done the job in an adult match before now, was brilliant. Which was fortunate, since he sports the sort of glorious permed mullet you need to play very well to get away with.
It also meant that Fiji had room to cope with being outscored by Australia, two tries to one. Mark Nawaqanitawase got the first, after Richard Arnold ripped the ball free in a tackle on the Australian 22. He tossed it back to Nic White, who launched a 50-22 box kick downfield. Nawaqanitawase caught up with it, and took a quick throw over Semi Radradra, the only defender in the vicinity, to Samu Kerevi, who popped the scoring pass back to Nawaqanitawase as the cover closed in. It was smart play, but the Australians were lucky that the refereeing team did not stop to take a second look at Arnold’s pass.
Fiji’s try owed a lot to a mistake by Australia’s young fly‑half Carter Gordon, who leapt to catch a box kick but found he had misjudged it and let the ball bounce in front of him. Josua Tuisova was waiting, and made clean away with the rebound to score in the corner.
Australia scored a second when Suli Vunivalu broke off a maul, but there were not too many more chances. It felt as if the two teams were so familiar with all the other’s tricks that it was hard for either to do anything that their opponent didn’t know was coming.
There are strong links between the sides: seven of the Wallabies have Fijian heritage, two played for their rugby league team. The game felt like a contest between brothers, full of anger, but also laced with affection. The players smashed each other up and then hugged like they knew their mothers were watching.
The odd thing was that it was the Fijians, so often the underdogs, who played the role of the elder sibling. All the development work – especially, as Jones noted, the introduction of the Drua into Super Rugby – is paying off for them, and it feels like the balance of power in the Pacific is finally shifting.
“The time of people talking about us as a group of talented individuals has passed,” the Fiji head coach, Simon Raiwalui, said. “Now they talk about us as a good team.” He wants to see them join the Rugby Championship. “No reason why they can’t,” Jones noted.
Jones’s team is a young Australian side, and will get better. They were at their best in the final quarter when, the head coach noted, they were fielding their youngest side in almost 30 years. But still, given the directions in which these two teams are heading, you wonder when, if ever, the Fijians will start as second favourites in this fixture again.