Flamboyant Fiji bid farewell to World Cup
October 9, 2007
"The 'flying' Fijians may have come to the end of their World Cup road but the legacy of the tournament is all the richer for their achievements." Graham Jenkins reports
The 'flying' Fijians may have come to the end of their Rugby World Cup road after a bruising encounter with South Africa but the legacy of the tournament, and the sport in general, is all the richer for their achievements.
Fiji's fans experienced a rollercoaster of a ride as their side battled all the way to the last eight - and if you are a fan of the sport you will have relished the twists and turns of their dramatic campaign.
First up for the South Sea Islanders were Japan who were narrowly seen off 35-31 in Toulouse.
Akapusi Qera, who will soon be gracing the Guinness Premiership with Gloucester, grabbed two tries as Fiji held off a tremendous effort by Japan to make a winning start to their Pool B campaign.
The lead changed hands a remarkable six times before the Fijians eventually clinched a bonus-point victory but most of the plaudits went to Japan - Fiji's time would come.
Then came the challenge of Canada in Cardiff where drama was once again the order of the day.
Fiji opened a 15-6 half-time lead with tries from lock Kele Leaware and Saracens full-back Kameli Ratuvou and moved further clear shortly after the interval when Vilimoni Delasau bulldozed his way over.
But Canada refused to concede defeat and hit back with a try and three penalties to ensure the match was in the balance heading into the final seconds.
Canada, who had already seen one potential try questionably ruled out by the video referee for a double movement, were decamped on the Fijian line determined to use their superiority in the tight to drive their way over for the winning try.
But Fiji held on and when the ball squeezed out of the ruck, Ratuvou was on hand to race 95 metres for his second try to seal the win and the bonus point.
That clash highlighted Fiji's tendency to be electric and erratic in equal measure.
That 29-16 victory moved Fiji above Wales in Pool B midway through the group stages but, of wider significance at the time, it also took them a huge step closer to automatic qualification for the 2011 World Cup.
An under-strength Fijian side took the field against Australia, believing as they did that their last game against Wales was the key to their World Cup destiny.
Fiji's game was riddled with errors and despite scoring twice, through winger Isoa Neivua and flanker Ace Ratuva, they never came close to threatening the Wallabies.
But they saved their best in the pool stages for last - they booked their first appearance in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals for 20 years with a 38-34
Fiji had stormed into a 25-3 lead with three tries in the space of 12 first-half minutes, from Qera, winger Vilimoni Delasau and lock Kele Leawere.
After Alix Popham touched down for a pushover try shortly before the interval, Wales produced a spirited comeback to edge ahead with further scores from Shane Williams, Gareth Thomas and Mark Jones.
Wales appeared to have the match won when Martyn Williams picked off a pass from Nicky Little and raced clear to score. But Fiji refused to be beaten and a try from Graham Dewes four minutes from time sealed the islanders a quarter-final tie against South Africa.
And so to Marseille and the challenge of South Africa in the quarter-finals.
The sun was shining again in Marseille, as it had done when England had stunned Australia on the same field the day before, and a packed crowd at the Stade Velodrome were largely willing Fiji to provide the tournament's latest shock.
Fiji were clear underdogs coming into the clash but had held their own and chanced their arm so far and were prepared to do so again.
The islanders had the neutral support inside Stade Velodrome and the volume levels rose in anticipation beginning in the warm-up and intensifying any time they ran with the ball.
Chants of 'Fiji-Fiji' echoed around the stadium and there islittle doubt that they would have never experienced anything like it.
As with the opening two quarter-final encounters, you were left in no doubt of the intensity on the field with crunching tackles leaving players littered around the pitch.
But time and time again the Fijians picked themselves up as they attempted to break down the superior South African defence.
Fiji are the sevens world champions and they drew on their natural ability and flair and combined it with their brute force to continually stretch the Springboks.
But it was not to be.
Despite a second half comeback that saw two scintillating tries within a minute, South Africa's forward power was finally able to quell their opponents with a 37-20 win taking them to the semi finals.
Had lock Ifereimi Rawaqa not missed adding a third second-half touchdown by a matter of inches - he was denied by a brilliant JP Pietersen tackle - Fiji might have prevailed.
The crowd rose as one to salute Fiji at the final whistle and as the bruised and battered Fijians took a lap of honour South Africa, to their credit, stepped to the side to allow the crowd to give them a proper send-off.
There was little chance of them following them around the pitch - the majority of this crowd, made up of all nations, had stayed for just one team.
In the aftermath of their defeat Fiji captain Mosese Rauluni, reflected on his side's outstanding campaign.
"I couldn't be more proud of the boys for their effort. It has been a great ride in this World Cup but the road stops here.
Sadly for Fiji, Rauluni is taking a break from the international stage next year but will not be missing much.
The Fijians currently have just two fixtures against top-tier opposition - possibly Ireland and Argentina - pencilled in for 2008.
Head coach Ilie Tabua repeated his plea for the International Rugby Board to help arrange more games against senior opposition but I fear his calls will fall on deaf ears and we will be having this debate in four years time.
Tabua is convinced that, with more matches against the major nations, Fiji could compete up front as fiercely as they do in the backs - let's hope the international calendar can, with the support of the major nations, give them what they and the other island nations want.
``We only get two Test matches next year," stressed Tabua, "We need to either be introduced into a competition (like the Super 14) or get more Test match games with tier one nations.
``The game is won up front. Hopefully now we can develop our tight five for 2011. One-on-one our players can beat anybody but winning the ball at the breakdown and recycling possession is an area we have to improve in and be competitive.''
It is an issue that the IRB must surely address - financial investment will get these sides only so far, experience against Tier 1 nations is also a key part of the answer.
Fiji's fans, old and new, will wallow in the fact that the likes of New Zealand and Australia were making arrangements for their flights home before them and few would begrudge them their moment in the sun.
Fiji's remarkable combination of pace, power and balance not only make them a threat to best sides in the world but also makes them an attractive propositon for fans of the sport.
And the governing body will be best served to nuture the islands' passion for the game yet further.