Australia survived an almighty scare at the Sapporo Dome as the World Cup was illuminated by the flying Fijians, before Michael Cheika’s side completed a last-quarter escape act.
The Rugby World Cup Pool D opener – the second match of this tournament – was threatening to produce a dramatic upset when the underdogs took an early 8-0 lead.
Soon after half-time, John McKee’s men were nine points in front and they did not go behind against their vaunted opponents for an hour.
Australia survived a big scare in their World Cup opener as they came from behind to beat Fiji
Samu Kerevi (left) celebrates with Kurtley Beale and Will Genia after scoring a try in Sapporo
Marika Koroibete touches down Australia’s sixth try of their opening World Cup contest
But with the stand-out Fijian performer from the first half, Clermont Auvergne flanker Peceli Yato, already off the field with a head injury, the sin-binning of his team-mate, Levani Botia, proved to be the key turning point.
By the time the La Rochelle centre returned, the Wallabies had dug themselves out of a deep hole and were 11 points up.
They ended up winning handsomely, but that cannot mask areas of concern for Cheika. He will be alarmed at the way his side lost their composure during the early onslaught and how they took a long time to adjust their tactics.
Wales will have watched proceedings with interest, as they must face both these teams. It will enhance their belief that they can beat Australia, but they will be wary of the threat these Fijians can pose, in their third pool fixture in Oita on October 9.
This was a spectacle that served to ignite the World Cup. Fiji’s brave bid for a famous result will have enthralled the neutrals and given hope to the other Tier 2 nations seeking to challenge the established order.
Samu Kerevi celebrates after scoring Australia’s fifth try during a tricky World Cup opener
Peceli Yato dives over to score the first of Fiji’s tries as they gave Australia a big scare
Fiji led 14-12 at half-time in the Sapporo Dome – here they celebrate their second try
Australia (12) 39
Tries: Hooper, Hodge, Latu 2, Kerevi, Koroibete
Cons: Lealiifano, Toomua 2
Fiji (14) 21
Tries: Yato, Nayacalevu
Pens: Volavola 3
The final result was harsh for them. They contributed so much to a pulsating encounter.
Fiji took the lead in the fifth minute through a penalty by Ben Volavola. One notable aspect of their play in the opening stages was the way the fly-half calmly steered them into enemy territory with an astute kicking game – despite the scare of being charged-down from the kick-off.
There may have been a certain amount of pragmatism from the Pacific islanders, but they never need much prompting to produce the attacking magic.
Sure enough, in the eighth minute, they surged further ahead with a stunning try from deep.
It was a showcase of trademark Fijian flair and power. Running back a kick from inside their half, the ball was shipped right and reached Josua Tuisova – the Toulon wing nicknamed ‘the Bus’.
He blasted through two attempted tackles and then passed inside to Waisea Nayacalevu, who ran on and released Yato for a charge to the corner and diving finish.
The Wallabies were rattled, but they responded. Their scrum was dominant and they used it as an effective weapon in the 18th minute, with a strong drive earning them a penalty advantage. They didn’t need it.
After the forwards thundered on through the 22, captain Michael Hooper picked up and blasted through a cluster of defenders to touch down. Christian Leali’ifano’s conversion reduced the deficit to one point.
Australia wing Reece Hodge scores a try as they fought back strongly in the second-half
Tolu Latu (centre) is congratulated by his team-mates after scoring Australia’s third try
But Fiji came again, with Yato in particular wreaking havoc all over the field. His scrambling efforts in defence helped his team claim another kickable penalty, which Volavola dispatched, before repeating the feat to make it 14-7 after 31 minutes.
But they lost the influential Yato – who failed a Head Injury Assessment – and Australia began to make in-roads with a narrower, driving game.
Four minutes from half-time, Cheika’s men struck again for a second try. A penalty was kicked to the left corner and from the lineout, the Wallaby pack made ground, the ball was released right and with an overlap to work with, Australia capitalised as Reece Hodge went over.
Leali’ifano couldn’t add the extras from a wide conversion attempt, so Fiji reached the break two points in front. Within four minutes of the re-start, they had extended their advantage.
Samu Kerevi is all smiles after scoring Australia’s fifth try to put the result beyond doubt
Fiji’s Semi Radradra looks dismayed after they allowed their half-time lead to slip away
When the ball went loose as Australia tried to attack on halfway, Nayacalevu pounced and ran away from the cover defence to soar between the posts. Volavola converted the try and the gap was nine points.
A shock was on the cards, but the Wallabies had other ideas. They began to seize control, with a long spell of possession and attacking territory.
They had worked out that they couldn’t out-Fiji their opponents, in terms of playing fast and loose, so they went for a route-one approach and it was highly effective.
Under the cosh, the Fijians conceded a series of penalties and paid the price. After a penalty by Hodge, the Wallabies kept using attacking lineouts to turn the contest upside-down.
Waisea Nayacalevu surges forward for Fiji to score their second try of the contest
The indoor arena of the Sapporo Dome provided an excellent backdrop to Saturday’s match
Either side of the hour mark, their pack powered over from close range for hooker Silatolu Latu to score two tries. Finally, after 62 minutes of a frenetic contest, the favourites had gone ahead.
By that stage, Fiji centre Levani Botia was in the sin-bin and his absence proved costly. By the time he returned, Samu Kerevi had added another try for Australia – converted by Matt Toomua – and they were well and truly out of the woods.
Soon after, Marika Koroibete surged down the left flank past the flailing Vereniki Goneva to turn what had been a crisis into a procession. Toomua converted from the touchline and it had turned into a cruel demise for Fiji.