Fiji faces ‘do or die’ against Wallabies at Rugby World Cup

When Fiji went back to basics in training camp in July, it wasn’t joking.

The team left behind the resorts and umbrella drinks in Suva to travel by ferries and buses for more than a day to the tiny village of Welagi on the outer island of Taveuni. Accommodation was thin mattresses on the floor of a hall. Food was provided by villagers, with whom the team ate. The practice field beside a beach was sandy.

The point was not just to train and bond for the Rugby World Cup but to reconnect with the people, remember what it meant to be Fijian. Many of the players — many of them well-paid stars in Europe — hadn’t trained in a village. But it reminded them of village life and games as kids. The humbling experience was a massive hit. The training, though, was brutal.

Simon Raiwalui, the coach since only February, was determined Fiji would not fade in the last 20 minutes of any games. So the players’ fitness was upgraded. There were giant sand dunes to trudge up in bare feet. In sunshine and rain. Again and again.

All that pain was endured to make the tough times at the Rugby World Cup easier to bear.

That time has come again this Sunday, when Fiji has to beat Australia in Saint-Etienne to stay in the hunt for a quarterfinal spot.

The agonizing 32-26 loss to Wales last weekend means Fiji is under pressure to keep its tournament hopes alive just nine days in, less than a third of the way through the pool stage.

“It’s a do or die game, that’s our mentality,” captain Waisea Nayacalevu confirmed.

It’s the nature of tournaments to move on to the next game, but Fiji was in this must-win situation because it had Wales at its mercy last Sunday and couldn’t pull the trigger.

Fiji had every important statistic in its overwhelming favor. And long before Semi Radradra dropped the last pass with the tryline open, Fiji bombed a try in each half due to other knock-ons at the tryline.

Huge shifts were put in by No. 8 Viliame Mata, 22 carries for 157 meters; fullback Ilaisa Droasese, 19 carries and 39 attacking rucks hit; and Radradra, 15 carries for 160 meters.

Radradra has moved from inside center to the wing to make way for Racing 92 center Josua Tuisova. Two other French Top 14 stars are starting: La Rochelle flanker Levani Botia and Toulon wing Jiuta Wainiqolo.

Scrumhalf Frank Lomani, sore after the Wales game, has been swapped out for his Fijian Drua understudy Simione Kuruvoli. Lomani took over the goalkicking last weekend when Teti Tela missed his first shot. But Tela resumed when Lomani left and hit one of two.

Fiji has remedied its traditional vulnerabilities of set-piece, discipline and fitness but goalkicking was back in doubt after the departure of the injured Caleb Muntz.

Australia is sweating on captain Will Skelton, who strained a calf in training and had a scan on Friday. He will be given until kickoff to prove his fitness.

The Wallabies already suffered a blow when prop Taniela Tupou failed to overcome a hamstring injury in training and was replaced by James Slipper, who has missed their last two games because of a foot tendon issue. Slipper will play tighthead for only the third time in 13 years.

Other changes following the 35-15 win over Georgia — Australia’s first this year — were Nick Frost in the second row and Nic White at scrumhalf for the concussed Tate McDermott.

Six of Australia’s seven players with Fijian heritage were in the match 23.

Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Suliasi Vunivalu were born in Fiji. Mark Nawaqanitawase, Rob Valetini and Issak Fines-Leleiwasa have heritage. Langi Gleeson wasn’t picked.

Nawaqanitawase said he considered committing to Fiji at the start of last year. The winger made his Wallabies debut last November and has become a key player.

The Fijians have some Australian links. Lock Isoa Nasilasila was born in Australia, and coach Raiwalui played for Australia Schools. He was also on the Wallabies staff under Michael Cheika at the 2019 World Cup.

“We’re proud of all Fijians that play all over the world,” Raiwalui said. “Some have had to go overseas to find opportunities but we’re proud of all our brothers whether they play for Fiji or Australia or other countries. It’s going to be good,” he joked, “with 30 Fijians on the field.”



Australia: Ben Donaldson, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Jordan Petaia, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Carter Gordon, Nic White; Rob Valetini, Fraser McReight, Tom Hooper, Will Skelton (captain), Nick Frost, James Slipper, David Porecki, Angus Bell. Reserves: Jordan Uelese, Blake Schoupp, Zane Nonggorr, Richard Arnold, Rob Leota, Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, Lalakai Foketi, Suliasi Vunivalu.

Fiji: Ilaisa Droasese, Jiuta Wainiqolo, Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Teti Tela, Simione Kuruvoli; Viliame Mata, Levani Botia, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Isoa Nasilasila, Luke Tagi, Samuel Matavesi, Eroni Mawi. Reserves: Tevita Ikanivere, Peni Ravai, Mesake Doge, Temo Mayanavanua, Albert Tuisue, Frank Lomani, Vilimoni Botitu, Vinaya Habosi.

___ AP Rugby World Cup:

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