Every World Cup needs an underdog story. Not for the first time, it’s the Pacific island of Fiji warming hearts at rugby’s showpiece.
The Flying Fijians, as they are monikered, beat two-time champion Australia on Sunday for the first time in 69 years and the first time at the Rugby World Cup, sending a ripple of joy through a tournament that has seen most outsiders get a predictable pounding from the big dogs in the first week-and-a-bit of action in France.
Defending champion South Africa hammered Romania 76-0 on Sunday, while New Zealand did away with Namibia 71-3 on Friday night.
But Fiji’s uplifting result on the second weekend — which actually was half-expected given the islanders’ recent rise — at least keeps the top teams on their toes and everyone else believing that there’s always a chance.
FIJI TAKES OFF
The Fijians have always been everyone’s favorite longshots at the Rugby World Cup due to the way they play, an inventive, ad-libbing attack-from-anywhere kind of ethos.
This year, Fiji is also seemingly better prepared than ever. That showed in the way its defense was a brick wall in holding off Australia 22-15, although there was still time for a little dazzle when center Josua Tuisova launched into a flying dive for Fiji’s one try. That and Fiji’s victory was met with rapturous approval from fans in Saint-Etienne and around the rugby world.
The spirit of the Fiji team has always been one of the game’s best stories given it doesn’t have anywhere near the resources of rugby powers like nearby Australia, New Zealand and others. That was enriched this year by a back-to-basics preparation camp, when the squad traveled to a tiny village on the nation’s outer island of Taveuni to sleep on thin mattresses, eat their meals with local villagers and train on a sandy field by the beach.
It was a huge hit with the Fiji players, who are now a huge hit in France while reviving their quarterfinal hopes.
“It is the biggest moment in Fiji sport and Fiji as a whole,” forward Temo Mayanavanua said. He might not be exaggerating considering a recent survey rated Fiji higher than New Zealand and South Africa — both three-time champions — on a list of “rugby-obsessed” countries.
Namibia and Romania didn’t come anywhere near upsets and were taken apart by New Zealand and South Africa, respectively. Those lopsided games are a more common picture in the early stages of the Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand ran in 11 tries for its 71-3 win against the Namibians, putting rugby’s most celebrated team back on track after it lost to host France in the opening game and went into a week of soul-searching. South Africa went one better with 12 tries in its 76-0 drubbing of Romania, which has conceded a mammoth 158 points in two ultra-tough games against top-ranked Ireland and No. 2 South Africa.
It’s important to note that rugby’s smaller teams often see the short-term pain as important for long-term gain, saying games against the best at the Rugby World Cup are the only way to improve, even if it hurts right now.
While New Zealand’s All Blacks were ruthless in hammering Namibia on the field, rugby’s renowned tradition of camaraderie among opposing players also shone through after Namibian center Le Roux Malan suffered a horrible broken and dislocated right ankle.
New Zealand’s players sent him an All Blacks jersey signed by all the players as a get-well and New Zealand center Anton Lienert-Brown visited Malan in the hospital. The jersey gesture was highly praised by Namibia coach Allister Coetzee.
Wales wing Louis Rees Zammit provided the strangest tale of the weekend after revealing he idolizes soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and even dresses like him, down to wearing Ronaldo’s branded underwear. It would explain why Rees Zammit celebrated his try against Portugal’s rugby team with his own version of Ronaldo’s famous ‘siuu!’ leap and land celebration. “I thought why not do his celebration as well,” Rees Zammit said.
Wales won 28-8, but the Portuguese provided another stirring underdog display in defeat in their first World Cup game in 16 years.
All eyes this week are on Ireland vs. South Africa on Saturday, rugby’s form team vs. the defending World Cup champion. It’s a mouthwatering meeting of the top two in the world in an early pool match. Ireland is arguably the most impressive team at this Rugby World Cup, an unfamiliar status for the Irish, who have often disappointed and have never made it past the quarterfinals.
This one feels different given that Ireland is on a run of 15 wins and has been No. 1 for over a year.
At the other end of the spectrum, Georgia and Portugal meet the same day, a clash of the minnows to Ireland’s and South Africa’s clash of the titans. But Portugal could win its first game at a Rugby World Cup.
Might Ronaldo be watching?