The Flying Fijians survived a scare and hung on to win 17-12 against a spirited Georgia in Bordeaux on Sunday morning, giving them hope of a quarterfinal spot at the Rugby World Cup in France.
Having trailed 9-0 at halftime, the Fijians scored two tries in the second half through captain Waisea Nayacalevu and replacement winger Vinaya Habosi.
Georgia gave everything they had and held their own against their much-fancied opponents, even charging for the tryline in the dying minutes of the game.
More than 42,000 fans could not have asked for a better game as the two teams battled it out on the field.
Both sides had predicted a tough clash.
It turned out to be that way — Georgia dominated the first half, Fiji came back in the second.
Head coach Simon Raiwalui said they lost the plot in the second half and the message was for the team to get back to the basics and play their own game.
‘On the back foot’
“All credit to Georgia, they played really well in the first half. We were a bit on the back foot, we didn’t help ourselves with the basics,” he told the media after the game.
“It was a bit of getting back to basics, we were giving too much ball away in contact. I think we were lucky to [only] be down 9-0 at half-time. It was real tight to the end.
“We said let’s get back to the basics. Get an advantage line, hold the ball and put some pressure back on them.”
Raiwalui said he was not looking too far beyond Portugal next week and they would review the game.
“I am really just worried about Portugal coming up, we have to take care of business,” he said.
“Prepare well and put on a performance. If we look too far beyond that we are going to slip over.
“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.
‘Chased too much’
“The good thing about this team, in the past we may have chased the game too much. This team, behind the leadership of Waisea [Nayacalevu], wasn’t a tidy game but came away with the result.”
Nayacalevu said he kept telling the players to keep fighting when they were down.
“Today we didn’t perform to the best of our ability, credit to Georgia. Coming into this week, we knew Georgia would come with physicality and speed,” he said.
“First half we made a lot of mistakes, I told the boys to keep fighting, next job. Second half we executed a few plays, stuck in the fight and we got the result.
“What game! My feelings, I’m pretty exhausted. The game was tough, shout out to Georgia for a tough game today.
“I am proud of the boys, what a team effort today we didn’t slack off, we kept fighting. I told the boys we have to keep fighting. For the record, we want to be a history-making team and that is our goal. We will take it step by step.”
Georgia led at half-time
Georgia led Fiji 9-0 at half-time, thanks to three successful penalties from winger Davit Niniashvili.
A courageous defence by Georgia and no retreat style of approach saw them create havoc on the field, forcing the Flying Fijians into errors.
The Fijians could not connect with their lineout with hooker Sam Matavesi over-throwing a couple of throw-ins.
While they were able to hold their own in the scrums, the Fijians were not able to put their phases together.
Georgia on the other hand applied the pressure from the opening whistle and combined physical power upfront with flair and speed along the backs.
Luke Tagi lost the ball over the line as the Fijians went on attack midway into the first spell, after they opted for a tap penalty in front of the posts.
Earlier halfback Simione Kuruvoli had sent the ball wide and short from a penalty attempt.
Semi Radradra, captain Waisea Nayacalevu, Ilaisa Droasese and Selestino Ravutaumada made some good breaks but disruptive defence from Georgia thwarted any hopes of those moves scoring points.
While the Georgians worked as a group on attack and had support players around the ball carriers Fiji made the mistake of individual players on attack too many times over.
Fiji had better second half
Radradra received a yellow card early in the half after play resumed and the Fijians were reduced to 14 men for 10 minutes.
Nayacalevu finished off a move in the corner with his try before Frank Lomani kicked from the sideline for the extra two points.
That saw Georgia lead 9-7.
Then Lomani kicked a penalty before replacement Habosi danced his way past would be tacklers after taking the off-loads from Levani Botia who had found his way through the Georgian defence.
At 17-7 the Georgians kept coming back into the game and Luka Matkava kicked a penalty to close the gap to 17-12.
Man of the Match Levani Botia said he was proud of the team coming back the way they did.
“So proud of the boys, I think we struggled in the first half. We gave away opportunities but we came back in the second half,” he said.
Keeping the ball alive
“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. Rugby is rugby, you don’t know what will happen.”
Georgian coach Levan Maisashvili said he was proud of his team despite the loss.
“Obviously I cannot be happy about the final result today, but I am really proud of my team. They did their best, they gave everything, it was not enough to win the match,” he said.
“Unfortunately in the first half we had to change some players, there were many injuries and in the second half as well, so that had a huge impact and we paid the price.
“The first half tactically was pretty well done, there were a couple of individual mistakes when we couldn’t follow our tactic to go straight forward, and to kick the ball out, to put more pressure on the opponent, but every time we had this tactic we had great results in the first half.”
This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.