By George Ramsay, CNN
(CNN) — Frank Lomani’s game-ending kick may have drifted wide of the posts, but that mattered little for Fiji’s players. As the final whistle blew on the Rugby World Cup group stage match, they could now celebrate beating Australia for the first time in the tournament’s history – and a first victory against the Wallabies since 1954.
The joyous celebrations that followed the 22-15 win were worthy of the historic occasion: substitutes ran onto the pitch to embrace their teammates, while others fell to the ground in disbelief.
Soon after, the players huddled together and – as is a tradition for Fijian rugby teams – sang a hymn to give their thanks to God.
Having lost to Wales in its opening World Cup game, the win against Australia, just Fiji’s third victory ever against the two-time world champion, now gives Fiji a good chance of reaching the quarterfinals of the competition.
“We treated this game as a final for us,” said try-scorer Josua Tuisova – a mentality that clearly reaped rewards.
Australia led 8-6 after Mark Nawaqanitawase took a quick lineout and linked up with Samu Kerevi for the game’s opening try, but Fiji responded through Simione Kuruvoli’s excellent goal-kicking.
Tuisova increased his side’s advantage at the start of the second half when he raced into the corner after Australia had failed to gather a high box kick, before Kuruvoli’s conversion and a Lomani penalty inched Fiji towards a famous win.
The Wallabies rallied late on and came within seven points through Suli Vunivalu’s try, but it wasn’t enough to mount a comeback.
“It was a good win against a very good Australian team,” Fiji’s head coach Simon Raiwalui told reporters. “We could have easily got distracted last week with the loss, but the boys applied themselves, trained well all week, and prepared themselves. The result was a direct relation to the preparation that the boys put in.”
For Australia, which beat Georgia in its opening World Cup game but suffered five defeats in the two months prior to the tournament, this will lead to further questions and soul-searching.
The two-time world champion, level with Fiji on six points, must now realistically beat Wales on Sunday to avoid elimination at the group stages for the first time.
Fiji, on the other hand, faces a more positive immediate future. Sunday’s win, which comes just weeks after a first win against England, could prove a turning point for the small Pacific Island nation of around 930,000 people.
Rugby is ubiquitous in Fiji, and its fans are among the most passionate in the world. But despite having a glut of talented players, limited resources, a lack of professional club teams, and few opportunities to compete at a high level have stunted the country’s progress.
Often struggling against “tier one” nations – so-called because they play in rugby’s top-level international competitions – the Flying Fijians, as the team is nicknamed, have failed to get past the pool stages of a Rugby World Cup since 2007, when they lost a memorable quarterfinal against South Africa.
“We wanted to change … our identity, what we stood for,” said Raiwalui, who was appointed head coach in February. “We have traditional areas where those ‘tier one’ teams – developed nations – attack us. I think those are areas where we’ve really improved.
“Teams talking of us as a bunch of very talented individuals is passing … It’s all credit to these boys; we’ve put the framework in place and they’ve put the work in.”
Against Australia, Fiji’s discipline and game management was superior, conceding seven penalties to the Wallabies’ 18 and turning the ball over 11 times.
Raiwalui’s team will now be confident of getting wins against Georgia and Portugal and potentially reaching the knockout rounds. Securing two losing bonus points against Wales – one for scoring four tries, another for losing by less than seven points – may prove decisive later in the tournament.
Fiji’s progress has no doubt benefitted from the formation of the Fijian Drua, a professional club side now playing alongside teams from New Zealand and Australia in Super Rugby.
“With Drua, you see not only do they try and educate [the players] around being professional, they also give them game-time, quality game-time at the Super Rugby level,” Fiji’s kicking coach Seremaia Bai told reporters.
“I think it’s massively positive for the development of rugby and you can see the way most of the boys who played in the Drua – it’s really improved the performance of the team.”
According to Bai, the next step would be for Fiji to earn a place alongside New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Australia in the Rugby Championship.
“[That] would be a massive, massive boost for such a small country as Fiji,” he added. “If you want to be the best you have to play with the best and New Zealand and Australia are not far away from Fiji.”
Limited resources can still be an issue for “tier two” rugby nations like Fiji, especially as they attempt to bridge the gap to their rivals at the top of the sport.
At this year’s World Cup, however, Raiwalui said that the team has been given the funding for a pastor, who is providing his players with support and religious guidance.
“We’ve prepared with what we’ve got as best we can … We were able to bring a talatala in – a reverend,” he said.
“You talk about mental wellbeing, but it’s our mental wellbeing being in connection with our religion, being in connection with our people. Our game and our campaign being geared towards [that] is important for us as Fijians.”
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