Bula Vinaka Cobbers!
Welcome aboard the early morning express for a match that everyone in green and gold (and probably black and white) has been both keenly anticipating and fearing in equal measure. Well it’s inescapably here now: when our first favourite team faces down the Cibi in taking on our second favourite team at the 42,000 seater Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne at 1745hrs Sunday local French (0145 Monday local Sydney).
The Kava Crew will be unimpressed to learn another Welshman by name of Andrew Brace will have the whistle for this second round affair when their Pool C third placed side (on 2pts) face the Pool C table leading Aussies (on 5pts).
It is a little unknown fact that rugby started in Fiji in 1884 as European soldiers and sailors took on the local native constabulary. The Fijians first came to Australia with an invitation touring team in 1952 and such was their electric play that the crowds thundered for more and set new attendance records for rugby at both the SCG and the Brisbane Exhibition Ground as the Fijians racked up an unheard of 55 tries in 10 matches. However, the formal track record since first facing off in an official test in 1954 has been a bit more lopsided with 22 played for 19 wins to Australia and 1 draw. The last Fijian win was 1954. And the World Cup record doesn’t read much better for the Flying Fijians with all three meetings (2007, 2015 and 2019) being Wobbly victories.
That said, the Kava Crew are in a rare vein of form. And with two years of the Drua Super side now behind them, their gel and cohesion is vastly improved on previous iterations. After winning the 2023 Pacific Nations Cup with a 3-0 record, taking their first victory over England 30-22 in August and a week ago pushing Wales to their very edge, they are not a side to be discounted. With the loss to Wales no doubt firing the coals under their eternally friendly demeanour, the Wobblies can expect the hits and the counter-attack to come with all the famous Fijian religious fervour and intensity.
For the Wobblies, last week’s 35-15 win over Georgia was lots of rocks, but a few diamonds. Sure it was a win, and being 1 and 5 is surely better than 0 from 6 for Supercoach Eddie Jones, but it was hardly the stuff of champions.
Looking at where we are, veteran James Slipper steps into the No3 jersey covering for Taniela Tupou (hamstring). And it’s worth noting that in taking the field tonight, Slipper joins Adam ‘two dogs’ Ashley-Cooper and George ‘that tackle’ Gregan in the Wobbly version of the ‘Four World Cup’ collective. So cheers and beers to Jimmy Slips.
The other notable changes in the squad are Nic White into no9 for Tate McDermott (concussion) which allows Issak Fines-Leleiwasa to grab a spot on the pine, and Nick Frost gets his first run of the Bill with Richie Arnold going to the bench. Will Skelton was reported as carrying an injured calf, but he’s been named as starting nonetheless. And despite many inches been written all over the place about changes in the 10/15 roles, Flash Gordon and Ducky Donaldson retain their jerseys, while again Andrew Kellaway fails to even get a spot on the pine. For me, I also note Jordan Uelese is on the bench taking Toowoomba Grammar old boy Matt Faessler’s 16 jersey.
All bulldust aside, the Wobblies superiority in set-piece, size and general structure should see them home by strangling and pressuring the Kava Crew out of the match. But if the Wobblies give the Pacific magicians an inch through poor execution, lazy defence or poor chase, then they’ll take a full mile and put the Wobbs under all sorts of pressure. And given the Wobblies form of late, there will be inches on offer all over the place. So the crux of the match may well hinge on leadership and how the Wobbs respond when (not ‘if’) things go wrong. As such, the Wobbs should carry the day as long as they don’t turn this in the the 2023 version of 2011 with Samoa.
Buckle up Cobbers because I expect a bell ringer of a match.
Lineups (confirmed as of 11am Sydney Sunday morning):
Wobblies: 15. Ben Donaldson, 14. Mark Nawaqanitawase, 13. Jordan Petaia, 12. Samu Kerevi, 11. Marika Koroibete, 10. Carter Gordon, 9. Nic White, 1. Angus Bell, 2. David Porecki, 3, James Slipper, 4. Nick Frost, 5. Will Skelton (captain), 6. Tom Hooper, 7. Fraser McReight, 8. Rob Valetini
Replacements: 16. Jordan Uelese, 17. Blake Schoupp, 18. Zane Nonggorr, 19. Richard Arnold, 20. Robert Leota, 21. Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, 22. Lalakai Foketi, 23. Suli Vunivalu
- Late notice change of Skelton out for Arnold to start and Mat Philip to No19.
Flyers: 15. Ilaisa Droasese, 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo, 13. Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), 12. Josua Tuisova, 11. Semi Radradra, 10. Teti Tela, 9. Simione Kuruvoli, 1. Eroni Mawi, 2. Samuel Matavesi, 3. Luke Tagi, 4. Isoa Nasilasila, 5. Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu, 7. Levani Botia, 8. Viliame Mata
Replacements: 16. Tevita Ikanivere, 17. Peni Ravai, 18. Mesake Doge, 19. Temo Mayanavanua, 20. Albert Tuisue, 21. Frank Lomani, 22. Vilimoni Botitu, 23. Vinaya Habosi
Nutta’s Fearless Prediction (aka ‘the kiss of death’): Look, we all love the Fijians. But realistically they’ll only get a sniff if the Wobblies let them. But if they do get that sniff because the Wobbs don’t execute as they should, well, it could get ugly really quickly then. It should be Wobblies by 12 (‘gulp’).
Good early morning, everybody, for the rock & roll event we’ve all been waiting for. It’s 0120hrs Sydney local time and the latest news out of the land of cheese and baguettes is that Skelton is out as the calf/cow injury got the better of him. As a result, Richie Arnold starts alongside Frost in the Locks and TV chat is that Matt Philip rolls onto the bench in jersey no19. It also means Dave Porecki takes up the captain’s armband, so congratulations to him. Although it’s worth noting that the appointment makes the tally under Supercoach Eddie as 6 captains in 7 tests. And that’s a first in Wobbly history. But it is what it is and let’s get it on…
H1: An Aussie kickoff, a quick turnover and a pair of head-high tackles from the Fijians saw Ducky Donaldson continue last week’s form and send the Wobbs to 3-0 up after 3min. And after some mid-field ‘feeling out’, we saw the Fijian reply at 11min posted by Kuruvoli. The next 12 minutes of play saw brave, ball-swinging play from both sides. But minor errors and very physical defence from both sides saw the expansive play go unfinished and unrewarded. A second penalty shot by Kuruvoli at 21min, from a McReight defensive breakdown error, was dead on and the score was 6-3 to Fiji.
The Fijian physicality and running game was starting to make ground through the middle of Wobbly defences until a good steal from Arnold, just outside the Wobbly 22m, allowed White to punch a fantastic 50-22 kick. A lightening fast lineout from Marky Mark to Kevvy Kerevi, with a quick offload back to Marky Mark, posted a Wobbly pie at 24min. Ducky missed the conversion and the score was 8-6. But the well-known Wobbly Achilles heel of poor kick-off and exit saw Fiji earn another penalty shot at 26min to move the score to 8-9, and then do it again shortly after at 33min, to move to 8-12 Fiji. Too many Wobbly first-up tackles were not being completed, allowing the Fijians to make ground through the contact and then forcing either an offside at the resulting breakdown or a head high tackle in the scramble defence thereafter.
Fiji’s best chance for a try came at 35min as yet another Wobbly penalty gifted Fiji a lineout some 8 metres off the Wobbly tryline. But a massive aerial effort from Frost pinched the lineout and relieved the pressure. Oranges were called with the score at 8-12 to the Fijians.
The Fijians dominated possession and territory (and the crowd support). Plus the strength of their carry through contact put the Wobbly defence on the back foot and created penalties (7 so far). When the Wobbs did hold the ball and play direct (eg through Kevvy & Bobby V), they were showing their class and making holes. But generally they were being sucked into playing too much Fijian-style loose footy, to the Wobbly detriment.
H2: The 2nd half started with robust defence from both sides (Bobby V and Kevvy again standouts), but at 43min a muffed Fijian box-kick reception between Ducky and Flash allowed Tuisova to swoop on the loose ball just inside the Wobbly half and scoot 40m for a pie in the corner. Kuruvoli slotted the conversion to make it 19-8 to Fiji at 44min. Flash was not having a good game. Kuruvoli then fell victim to an ankle sprain and was replaced at 46min, potentially relieving the Aussies of his deadly place kicking threat.
A further 2 offside penalties saw new Fijian kicker Lomani get a shot for 3pts, but then register the first Fijian miss at 49min. Meanwhile, Flash Gordon was hooked for Vunivalu, meaning Ducky moved to 10.
Fresh Fijian reserves kept the pressure on the Wobbs, but nonetheless the Wobbs made some running chances, only for poor kicking options in open play to then suck out any momentum from the moment (Petaia and Vunivalu the biggest culprits).
By 60min both sides had ran out their replacements, the score was still 19-8 to Fiji and the final quarter was set to a knife edge. A well worked scrum penalty to the Wobbs on about halfway allowed the Wobbs to push a lineout to the Fijian quarter and… Uelese gets himself isolated off the maul and a penalty turnover to Fiji releases the pressure. It’s typical of the Wobbs night and the momentum is all with Fiji now. The Wobbs were in real strife and clearly lacking leadership and direction. They were following the formula to create the opportunities, but lacked vision and leadership to finish the job.
To that very point, at 63min another poor Fiji lineout and another Fijian head high gifted the Wobbs another lineout opportunity deep in the Fijian quarter. Again, a good lineout win (again to Frost) and a healthy maul-drive gave front-foot ball to the centres and … again we turned it over at the breakdown with a sealing off penalty. Bugger me. So we created the chances but we simply did not execute efficiently. It was maddening.
Continuing the theme of stuff I’ve seen before as the Wobbs self-destruct, Uelese then knocked himself out at 65min looking for the big hit, bringing Porecki back on and giving Lomani yet another penalty shot, this time from in-front, which he duly slotted to send Fiji to 22-8 up.
Good breakdown work by Foketi earned another penalty for yet another Wobb lineout deep in Fiji quarter at 67min. Yet another good lineout win saw backs join the lineout drive and finally the 68min saw Vunivalu grab a pick & go pie. A calm conversion by Ducky left the score as 22-15 to Fiji and the anticipation coming into the last 10min was electric. Could the Wobbs mount the comeback? Or were the Fijians on the verge of something tremendous in their rugby history?
‘Computer said no’ for the Wobbs. As expected, the Wobblies continued to create multiple opportunities, but still the Wobbs couldn’t (or wouldn’t) execute as time ticked away. The game was over when, from a 78min midfield scrum, a missed Petaia tackle allowed Fiji to push deep into the Wobbly quarter. And the mental pressure on the Wobbs finally told when a scrum powered by pure Fijian emotion splintered the Wobbly pack and forced an 80th minute penalty. Fiji turned down the easy tap and kick-out option to instead take a final shot at penalty goal in an attempt to deny the Wobbs a bonus point. But it was scant relief to the hapless Aussies as a second Lomani miss left the score at 22-15 Fiji.
And so, for the first time in 69 years, Fiji beat Australia. Congratulations Fiji. Their class, power through contact and the boot of Kuruvoli shone through when it counted. Their physicality and post-tackle metres kept the Wobblies on the back foot all night. And their enthusiasm and energy on cover defence made sure what breaks the Wobbs made came to nothing. Couple that with an 18-7 penalty count against the Wobbs, and being on the wrong side of a 3:1 turnover ratio, and the glory, accolades and the chocolates rightly go to the Flying Fijians.
For the Wobbs, being without the power of Skelton and Tupou was telling, while the early hooking of Flash Gordon and the weight of expectation now being piled on Ducky Donaldson will surely be talking points all week. They had the opportunities most surely, but they lacked the composure, decision-making and leadership to finish the plays and score the tries.
Folks, our nightmare may be entering reality as Wales now becomes a must win game, or we may well exit in the pools.
The Game Changer: The 43rd minute try to Tuisova opened up a gap both on the scoreboard and in the brains of the Wobbs that simply could not be overcome.
The Man of the Match/Standout Player: Botia was huge in unseen places for Fiji while Bobby V carried and tackled strongly for the Wobblies all day. Frost was deadly in the lineout air both on attack and defence. But the power running of Fijian No12 Tuisova and the deadly boot of Fijian No9 Kuruvoli were undeniable. Frankly the award could have gone to either of them, but Josua Tuisova was a well deserved recipient.
The Score Details: 22-15 Fiji.
Tries: Mark Nawaqanitawase (24min) Vunivalu (68min)
Conversions: Donaldson (69min and miss at 24min)
Penalties: Donaldson (3min)
Tries: Tuisova (43min)
Conversions: Kuruvoli (44min)
Penalties: Kuruvoli (11min, 21min, 27min, 32min). Lomani (65min, misses at 49min and 81min)