Defiant coach Eddie Jones insists the Wallabies’ World Cup dreams aren’t done after their shock loss to Fiji, believing they can turn their form around to trump Wales and still move through to the quarter-finals.
Crashing 22-15 in Saint-Etienne, this was the Wallabies’ first loss to Fiji in 69 years and their first ever at a World Cup, leaving them in danger of another horror first – missing the tournament play-offs.
The undermanned Australians couldn’t match the power and pace of the Pacific Islanders, who said they entered Sunday’s (Monday AEST) match with a “do-or-die” mentality after their heart-breaking first-up loss to Wales.
The Wallabies will need to take the same mindset into their third pool match against the unbeaten Welsh in Lyon next Sunday (Monday AEST).
“The great thing about a World Cup is it’s not the end of the road and we’ve got Wales next week, so we need to kick some stones tonight, work out where we can improve quickly and get on with it,” Jones said.
“I’ve got no doubt we get a response. We’ve had a bit of a setback today but that’s all part of being in a World Cup.”
With Wales on 10 points, Wallabies have sunk to third in their pool, on six points with Fiji second, also on six, with their first quarter-final appearance since 2007 beckoning.
In another blow for Wallabies fans, both skipper Will Skelton (calf) and spearhead prop Taniela Tupou (hamstring) won’t be available for the Wales game.
Without that pair, the Wallabies lacked the big ball-carriers to punch through the steely Fijian defence and couldn’t use their set-piece to dominate as they did in their opening win over Georgia.
Australian incurred a fateful tally of 18 penalties, with a final scrum penalty after fulltime almost costing them a crucial bonus point, only for Fijian Frank Lomani’s kick to sail wide of the posts.
“When you’re not on the front foot it’s quite easy to give away penalties so I’m not worried about our discipline, I’m worried about not getting on the front foot because if you can’t you’re battling,” Jones said.
Fiji were ferocious at the breakdown, winning 11 turnovers, and played through the middle and with width, with the Wallabies falling off 23 tackles.
But Fiji also played a smart game, taking the points on offer, with halfback Simione Kuruvoli nailing four penalties to give his team a 12-8 halftime lead.
The Wallabies opened with a penalty by Ben Donaldson in the third minute and then took advantage of a suspect turnover by lock Richie Arnold.
Halfback Nic White booted a 50:22 and Mark Nawaqanitawase caught former NRL winger Semi Radradra off guard, taking a quick throw-in to Samu Kerevi who passed it back inside for the winger to score.
Jones’s hopes of his team taking control of the match in the second half went out the window three minutes in when Josua Tuisova charged over.
The blockbusting centre was gifted the ball after some confusion between Nawaqanitawase and rookie five-eighth Carter Gordon about catching a high Fiji kick.
Jones yanked Gordon in the 49th minute, bringing on winger Suliasi Vunivalu and shifting Nawaqanitawase to fullback and Donaldson to 10 as he tried to kick-start the attack.
“We needed to get some momentum … I thought the changes were positive and put us back in the game.”
Fiji extended their lead to 22-8 in the 66th minute through a Lomani penalty before Vunivalu gave Wallabies fans a glimmer of hope when he slammed the ball over the line, with Donaldson adding the extras to close the gap to seven points.
But any time they started to build some momentum they incurred a penalty or were turned over by Fiji.
While the Wallabies prepare for Wales, Fiji have a two-week break before they face winless Georgia in Bordeaux.