SAPPORO, Japan — Rattled, Australia avoided the first big upset of the Rugby World Cup when it rallied from nine points down early in the second half to beat Fiji 39-21 on Saturday.
The two-time champion was knocked back by the Fijians’ intensity and couldn’t get a handle on their elusive running game for the first half, and trailed 8-0, 14-7 and 21-12 before changing tactics to win under the roof at the Sapporo Dome.
“We got tested, definitely,” Australia coach Michael Cheika said.
Australia tightened up, scored two tries off rolling mauls in the space of five minutes in the second half, and ultimately put 27 unanswered points past the Fijians in the last half-hour.
That averted what would have been the most surprising defeat at a World Cup for the 1991 and 99′ winners, who have only lost two pool games in eight previous World Cups.
“Obviously happy to win, yeah, you know there’s no doubt about that,” Cheika said. “That’s the way games go. It’s the World Cup.
“One thing we’ve been talking about inside the team is we’re not looking for perfection. It never happens in this game.”
Australia was tested from the opening whistle.
There were a number of Fijian breaks before winger Josua Tuisova rampaged down the right in the eighth minute, bursting through one tackle and fending off another, to set up a try for flanker Peceli Yato.
Flyhalf Ben Volavola also kicked three first-half penalties for Fiji — against the country of his birth.
Australia worked its way back and trailed 14-12 at halftime with scores by captain Michael Hooper and wing Reece Hodge.
The momentum started to shift, but Fiji was lifted again in the opening exchanges of the second half with a 50-meter breakaway by center Waisea Nayacalevu. He scooped up a dropped pass by Christian Leali’ifano, pushed the Wallabies flyhalf away, and raced half the length of the field to score between the posts.
Japanese fans cheered mostly for the Fijians at the Sapporo Dome, which is usually a baseball arena.
But as Fiji appeared set for its biggest result at a Rugby World Cup, Australia regained its composure.
“We take a lot of positives from that game,” Fiji coach John McKee said. “We really had Australia on the rails, certainly for 40 minutes and for portions of the second half. But we’ve got to close games out. You don’t win test matches by being able to play well for 60 minutes.”
Two tries in the space of five minutes from rolling mauls by hooker Tolu Latu put Australia ahead for the first time in the game in the 62nd minute as the Wallabies finally found a way to neutralize Fiji.
Center Samu Kerevi and winger Marika Koroibete, both born in Fiji, scored late to give Australia a six-tries-to-two victory and make it appear comfortable.
At the start, Fiji’s powerful runners were bursting through tackles and knocking the Australians back when defending, and Australia was making errors under the pressure.
Australia hasn’t lost to Fiji since 1954 and that record, and its World Cup reputation, was in major danger.
Hooper finished off a series of drives close to the Fijian line after slipping past the first line of defense and forcing his way low and over the line to make it 8-7.
Hodge’s try from an overlap on the wing, after two more penalties by Volavola, saw Australia close it to 14-12 at the break.
Hodge also took away some of Fiji’s momentum a few minutes earlier with a crunching, try-saving tackle on flanker Yato. Hodge’s shoulder connected with Yato’s head in the contact, though, and the Fijians questioned the legality of the tackle.
Yato left for a head injury assessment and didn’t return to the game, and the decision by referee Ben O’Keefe and the television match official not to take action was under scrutiny. Yato could be out of Fiji’s next game against Uruguay.
Down 21-12 after Nayacalevu’s try, Australia found success in the tight exchanges and the rolling mauls, and Latu scored both his tries in the right corner.
“We went back to some of our basics there and it paid off quite well,” Hooper said.
Australia also forced a series of penalties that resulted in Fiji center Levani Botia being sent to the sin-bin in between Latu’s two tries. That one-man advantage gave the Wallabies enough breathing space to spread the ball a little wider, setting up late tries for Kerevi and Koroibete.
“We were prepared for a strong contest all the way through and just try and get ourselves ahead in the last 20 minutes,” Cheika said. “That was the idea. Because we know the Fijians. We know how good they are.”