SAINT ETIENNE – The hands covering the faces of the Wallabies fans said it all. Not at full-time, but midway through the second half as the spectre came firmly down on Eddie Jones’ men wearing gold in the middle.
While the Wallabies banged over the opening points of the evening, Fiji dominated the match – and won 22-15 despite some late jitters.
So much for tier-two. So much for the Fijians not being invited into The Rugby Championship. So much for Fiji being an all-out attacking side, with Simon Raiwalui’s men kicking five penalties to sink the Wallabies.
Fiji have made a mockery of SANZAAR’s resistance to change their southern hemisphere tournament.
History says this was an upset. It is given Fiji hadn’t beaten the Wallabies since 1954, but recent results suggested this was a result brewing from Suva. The win saw the Fijians jump above Australia on the world rankings.
It was 10 weeks ago Raiwalui, who was the Wallabies’ assistant at the last World Cup, took his men to the outer islands of Fiji to help his squad rich with talent rediscover what it is to be Fijian.
Since then, Fiji have lost just two Tests to France last month and Wales in their World Cup opener.
The Wallabies? They’ve won just one of their past seven Tests, with Sunday’s humbling result firmly putting the spotlight on Jones and the Rugby Australia board that sensationally parachuted him into the role.
Fiji’s World Cup dreams are once again full of oxygen; Australia’s is clinging to life support.
The Wallabies must now head 50 kilometres up the road to Lyon and take down Warren Gatland’s men to surely progress through to the final eight – if they stumble, it will reinforce the once proud rugby nation’s fall from grace over the past two decades.
The Wallabies’ ill-discipline proved costly.
A week after giving away just seven penalties during their first-up win over Georgia, the Wallabies conceded 18 penalties. No international side wins with a penalty sheet like that. But it also reflected the many moving parts – and personnel – within Jones’ side currently.
A five-minute period midway through the second half summed up the Wallabies’ nightmare, as Andrew Brace blew Jones’ men off the field just as they readied to strike.
With the Wallabies trailing 19-8, Dave Porecki – the nation’s 88th captain after Will Skelton fell down on Thursday evening with a calf injury – was pinged five metres out from the Fijian line.
Minutes later it was his replacement, Jordan Uelese, who was penalised for not releasing.
Then, centre Samu Kerevi in the 63rd minute.
On each occasion it was another nail in the coffin as the Fijians and their adopted France fans that grew in voice.
More penalties were to come, with Suliasi Vunivalu penalised in the 72nd minute and Marika Koroibete two minutes later.
The failure to secure their attacking breakdown wasn’t a new issue in Australian rugby, but it showed who dominated the physical battle.
Nor was the Wallabies’ kicking game effective.
Nic White delivered one brilliant 50-22 after some Richie McCaw-esque robbery at the breakdown, but he was one of three backs to kick dead in goal.
The other two came in the second half as Jordan Petaia and Suliasi Vunivalu found the deadball line.
Without Skelton and Taniela Tupou, another fallen giant during horrific week on the training ground, the Wallabies were bullied by Josua Tuisova, whose selection in the midfield worked a treat from Raiwalui.
While Skelton’s absence allowed the Wallabies’ lineout to function well, with Nick Frost particularly effective in disrupting their opponent’s ball, their scrum didn’t get anywhere near the pay without Tupou.
But it was the early exit of Carter Gordon – the 22-year-old fly-half, who was controversially given the keys to the car after Quade Cooper was dropped and Bernard Foley never looked at – that was the sorry sight after 49 minutes.
Gordon was run at all evening by Tuisova and while the blonde-haired fly-half never shirked it on either side of the ball, he was found wanting as he spilt the ball in contact and struggled to assert himself on the game.
With the only specialist fly-half removed, Ben Donaldson shifted to the playmaking position and together with Issak Fines-Leleiwasa managed to increase the tempo of the game. Regrettably, it didn’t last long because of their shortcomings at the breakdown.
Only history will show how Gordon recovers from the display. Some don’t ever, particularly if Donaldson is thrust into the do-or-die Test against Wales next weekend.
Jones won’t have the luxury of injecting Skelton nor Tupou back into the fray against Wales. They’re hammer blows for a side desperately lacking power and explosiveness up front.
Who else will he turn to?
Tate McDermott, who was concussed during the win over Georgia, will undoubtedly return.
Pone Fa’aumasuli’s power at tight-head prop will be helpful should he prove his fitness.
While Max Jorgensen, a man of prodigious talent, will surely be thought of to play and perhaps even start at fullback if Jones turns to Donaldson at fly-half.
The Wallabies started the World Cup ranked in ninth spot on the World Rugby rankings. Wales was 10th.
Little has changed since then, with both nations trying to find their feet on the world’s biggest stage having thrown their New Zealand coaches to the scrap heap less than 12 months out from the World Cup.
For next week’s losing nation, that decision, at least in the short term, will be a hard pill to stomach and, indeed, recover from.