NANTES – It was good whilst it lasted. But, as often has proved the case in Australian rugby, it’s the hope that kills you.
Needing Fiji to capitulate and not take a point from their final Pool C pool match, Simon Raiwalui’s men nearly did just that against Portugal in Toulouse.
But nearly wasn’t enough, as Fiji snagged a crucial losing point in a dramatic and incredible 24-23 loss to Portugal.
The defeat was enough for Fiji to join the Wallabies on 11 points in the pool, but their earlier 22-15 victory in Saint Etienne was enough for them to leapfrog Eddie Jones’ side into second spot and set up a quarter-final against England next week in Marseille.
Twice Fiji fell behind by a converted try in the second half, as Raffaele Storti and Francisco Fernandes scored tries in the space of six minutes, but replacement prop Mesake Doge’s try in tight after sustained pressure on the Portuguese line looked to put Fiji on their way as he helped level the score.
Then, in the 74th minute, Frank Lomani edged Fiji closer with a penalty to take a 20-17 lead.
Lomani’s second penalty two minutes later looked to have sealed the deal, before Rodrigo Marta finished off a stunning try which allowed Samuel Marques to bang over a difficult conversion and give Portugal the late lead.
It was all Portugal needed, as they banged the ball into touch without a second thought of the misery unfolding in Australia as a result.
And nor should they have, either. This was a result to elevate the standing of so-called “tier-two” rugby across the world as Portugal produced one of the upsets of the World Cup and delivered the tournament the extraordinary finish to the pool stage that was needed to wake many up after five weeks.
For too long World Rugby have treated the rest of the world with contempt, resting on the riches that some can bring instead of seeing how the game can grow by expanding the pie.
Portugal, who would not have made the World Cup were it not for a scandal involving Spain, have sent a giant message to the suits at World Rugby that the rest needs nurturing, not scraps.
Their desire to run the ball and play with expansion was the most refreshing aspect of this year’s World Cup.
Nor was it a fluke either, having pushed the Wallabies only a week early despite going down 34-14. They also went down just 28-8 to Wales, who topped Pool C, while drawing 18-18 with Georgia.
The result came a day after Samoa fell just one point short of Pool D winners England, who snuck home 18-17 in Lille.
Japan coach Jamie Joseph, who led the Highlanders to the Super Rugby title in 2015, agreed that more attention was needed.
“I think it’s the most important, and I think I could say it on behalf of all two-tier teams, that they’re quality rugby players but we can’t get quality time to develop those quality rugby players to play games like we witnessed today,” Joseph told reporters following their 39-27 loss to Argentina.
“This year, we played 10 tough games of rugby and now we’re starting to play to our potential.”