Fiji will head into next month’s World Cup as the tournament’s darkest horse. The Island Nation is celebrating their greatest victory, having shocked England 30-22 at Twickenham to record their first win over the rugby heavyweight.
Despite trailing 8-0 after an early Jonny May try and 8-3 at half-time, Fiji thrived in the wet and put the heat on England to take the lead early in the second half after captain Waisea Nayacalevu scored. Fiji never looked back.
Both sides scored three tries but it was the boot of Caleb Muntz that was the difference, with the playmaker slotting three penalties.
After Marcus Smith gave England some hope by scoring a stunning try, Simione Kuruvoli’s try in the 72nd minute and some strong late defence sealed the deal.
Fiji, who have made the World Cup quarter-finals just once, have emerged as one of the tournament’s outside threats after four wins from five matches since July. Their sole defeat was against France last weekend.
Simon Raiwalui’s men are grouped alongside the Wallabies and Wales in Pool C, with a path through to the semi-finals a genuine possibility.
Not that Nayacalevu would boldly declare that when asked by Sonja McLaughlan, with Fiji to play Wales in a tournament defining opening match.
“We’ll see after our first game against Wales,” he said.
England might have made four World Cup finals and claimed the Webb Ellis Cup once in 2003, but it was the rugby powerhouse that looked the “tier-two” side.
Fiji made England rue their poor handling while their stars players, including Semi Radradra, bumped away his opposite numbers at will.
Were it not for several blown chances in the second 20 minutes of the opening half, Fiji would have won in a canter.
In the end, they were forced to repel England’s second half surge as they closed to within one point when Joe Marchant scored out wide and George Ford converted from the sideline.
“We just needed to keep our discipline,” Nayacalevu said. “We lost a bit of footy in our heads and England gave us what we expected.”
While Twickenham’s top tier was closed, the noise Fiji’s fans made was deafening.
“Very proud, happy, excited. Grateful for the opportunity, everything has gone to plan,” Nayacalevu said.
“Big shout out to the boy who always have my back at training. [A big thank you] to the fans who came out today and we’ll see you at the World Cup.”
England, meanwhile, are in disarray.
Almost 10 months after the Rugby Football Union sacked Eddie Jones, Steve Borthwick’s men won just two Six Nations Tests and have slumped to defeats to Wales, Ireland and now Fiji over the past month.
Courtney Lawes, who is deputising in the absence of the suspended Owen Farrell, was once again the man who was forced to bring the team together at the fallen Twickenham fortress that is now being described as the “temple of doom”.
“A familiar one, unfortunately,” Lawes said, in reference to the long huddle following the defeat.
“It’s just not good enough. We are where we are at the minute, all we can do is push on. It’s obviously really disappointing. Not much more to say really.”
Central to England’s poor form is their poor defence, with Borthwick’s side shipping 23 tries in their past six matches.
Lawes said their struggles went beyond their defence.
“We just need to get our attack together,” he said.
“Again, turning over too many, crucial penalties, and today we didn’t tackle well enough.
“They’re a really good team now. They’ve got some phenomenal athletes and they showed it today. One-on-one they made us look silly at times. We need to improve. We’ve got to two weeks to do so.”
The match was watched before the eyes of Wales coach Warren Gatland.
He won’t be the only coach who will have sat up and taken notice.
It was in the days after the World Cup draw took place that Eddie Jones nominated Fiji as the World Cup’s dark horse. At the time he was England coach. Now, his Wallabies side will take them on in St Etienne in their second Pool C match on September 16.