Anxious and error-prone Fiji fought back to beat fading Georgia 17-12 on Saturday and remain on course for the World Cup quarter-finals, pushing Australia to the brink of elimination.
Fiji scored two second-half tries as they rebounded from a nine-point half-time deficit to tighten their grip on second place in Group C, but their failure to collect a bonus point left Australia with a slight hope of avoiding a first ever group-stage exit.
“If I am being honest we were beaten to the punch in the first half. We knew it was going to be a battle. I am just thankful we have the result,” said Fiji head coach Simon Raiwalui.
Georgia were eliminated. Australia and Fiji both finish the group by facing Portugal. Australia need to pick up a bonus-point win and hope Fiji lose without a point. Even Portugal could sneak in with two remarkable victories.
“What a game! I’m pretty exhausted. Shout out to Georgia for a tough game today” said Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu.
With a quarter-final place beckoning, Fiji started anxiously in Bordeaux, messing up restarts, losing lineouts, giving away penalties and paying the habitual price for their high-risk passing attack and repeatedly dropping the ball.
Yet Georgia also showed nerves as they blew gilt-edged touchdown chances at each end of the half.
After two minutes, Akaki Tabutsadze spilled the ball with the try-line calling.
The winger was denied at the end of the half. After Georgia counter-attacked more than 60 metres following a double Fijian fumble, Tornike Jalagonia hurled his pass forward as he found the wide-open Tabutsadze.
Georgia did punish Fiji’s indiscipline.
Luka Matkava kicked a short penalty and long-range specialist Davit Niniashvili booted one from inside his own half and one from almost 50m to give Georgia a 9-0 half-time lead.
But Georgia had also lost hooker Tengizi Zamtaradze and lock Lasha Jaiani to injury in the first 17 minutes, leaving their replacements to play more than three-quarters of a ferocious match.
Fiji’s Semi Radradra drew a yellow card for a deliberate knock on in the first minute of the second half.
Down a man, Fiji finally made their passes stick. Nayacalevu twirled through two tackles on the wing to touch down behind his back.
Frank Lomani converted from wide and then hit the post with a penalty from right in front but squirted one through from a few yards further away after 65 minutes to put Fiji a point ahead.
“It was a bit of getting back to basics, we were giving too much ball away in contact. I think we were lucky to be down 9-0 at half-time” said Raiwalui.
As the second half progressed, Georgia’s defence began to slacken. Flanker Levani Botia smashed into the Georgian line and then flipped a sublime pass to substitute Vinaya Habosi who jagged though a huge hole to score.
“I think one thing about us Fijians is we like to keep the ball alive, we trust each other, I saw my teammate and I understand I have to give the opportunity,” said Botia.
Lomani converted and Fiji had an eight-point lead and 11 minutes to earn a try bonus point and lock up a last-eight place
Instead, Josua Tuisova tackled high and bumped heads with Miriani Modebadze to earn a card and Matkava converted the penalty.
Fiji survived one last Georgian thrust to hold on for the victory.
“It was real tight to the end,” said Raiwalui.
Raiwalui will not allow himself to think about a Rugby World Cup quarter-final just yet but, having seen his side roll up their sleeves and fight for a gritty 17-12 win over Georgia in Bordeaux, he knows they are almost there.
Fiji will have their knockout phase place confirmed on Sunday if Australia win without a bonus-point against Portugal in their final Pool C fixture in Saint-Etienne, but the Pacific Islanders will likely need a single point when they meet the Portuguese in Toulouse next Sunday.
That would book a first quarter-final place since 2007, confirming their progress over the last 12 months, following a first-ever win over England at Twickenham.
“I am really just worried about Portugal coming up, we have to take care of business,” a cautious Raiwalui told reporters when asked about a place in the knockout rounds.
“Prepare well and put on a performance. If we look too far beyond that we are going to slip over.”
Fiji rallied from 9-0 down at halftime to beat a stubborn Georgia and that character shown by the team was most pleasing for Raiwalui.
“No result is a miracle, you win or lose,” he said. “Georgia played well, they were very clinical in the first half, their forwards were very strong and their back three were very dangerous on the counter-attack.
“The good thing is in the past we may have chased the game too much. This team, behind the leadership of Waisea (Nayacalevu), came away with the result.”
Nayacalevu admitted the performance was below par but an improved second-half display with more composure won the day. “We didn’t manage to do a few things, dropped balls, we put ourselves under pressure in the first half,” he said. “I told the boys, ‘We keep fighting, we keep focusing, keep on going, don’t back out,” he said.