As two-time winners of Rugby World Cup Sevens, Olympic gold medallists and HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series champions on no less than three occasions, Fiji have left an indelible mark on the shorter format of the game. However, at 15s Rugby World Cups, they have had a largely chequered history with successes few and far between.
Unquestionably, Fiji’s finest hour at a Rugby World Cup came at France 2007, a 38-34 win over Wales in Nantes seeing them go through to the knockout stages for only the second time in their history, having also made the last eight at the inaugural tournament in 1987.
That year they kicked off their Rugby World Cup journey in style, with a 28-9 victory over Argentina in Hamilton, New Zealand. Despite defeats to the All Blacks and Italy in their next two pool games, Fiji made it through to the last eight on superior try count. A 31-16 loss to eventual runners-up France in the quarter-finals made for a record of won one, lost three at RWC 1987.
Indeed, it would be 12 long years before they tasted victory at that level again, the 1991 campaign proving to be a disappointment with defeats to Canada, France and Romania, followed by their failure to even qualify for the 1995 edition in South Africa.
By 1999 Fiji were back on track. With Kiwi coach Brad Johnstone instilling discipline into their set-piece play, the combination of traditional flair and organisation saw them defeat both Namibia and Canada to set up a quarter-final play-off showdown with England at Twickenham. Despite the valiant efforts of fly-half Nicky Little and tries from Viliame Satala, Meli Nakauta and Imanueli Tikomaimakogai, Fiji lost 45-24.
With pride suitably restored and legendary winger Rupeni Caucaunibuca running amok, Fiji gave a good account of themselves in Australia in 2003. Wins over USA (19-18) and Japan (41-13) ensured that the final pool match against Scotland would ultimately decide who would join pool winners France in the quarter-finals. Caucaunibuca was on fire, scoring two superb individual tries as Fiji led 20-15 with just two minutes left on the clock. Crucially, though, Fiji lost second-row Api Naevo to the sin-bin and Scotland capitalised by scoring a try through Tom Smith from a rolling maul which Chris Paterson converted for the win.
Four years on, Fiji faced another ‘winner-takes-all’ clash against a Celtic nation as only Wales stood between them and a place in the last eight. Just when it seemed like Martyn Williams’ 73rd-minute try would be enough to thwart Fiji, up popped prop Graham Dewes with what proved to be the all-important score. While it was a sad way for Wales captain Gareth Thomas to mark his 100th test appearance, everyone connected with Fijian rugby was beaming from ear to ear.
Fiji’s rugby in France had certainly been a joy to watch and they continued in the same vein seven days later in Marseilles in the quarter-final against South Africa. With backs like Vilimoni Delasau, Kamila Ratio, Seru Rabeni, Sireli Bobo and Seremaia Bai in their pomp, they gave world champions-in-waiting South Africa the mother of all hurry-ups before eventually going down 37-20. With the match tied at 20-20 deep in the second half, second-row Ifereimi Rawaqa missed a golden opportunity to score. Offered a reprieve, the Springboks fought back to advance to the semi-finals.
In contrast to their success in France, Fiji were a shadow of their former selves four years later in New Zealand. Despite thousands of ex-pat supporters – and those who had made the relatively short hop from their homeland – cheering them on, heavy defeats to South Africa and Wales and a 27-7 loss to Pacific Island rivals Samoa made it a Rugby World Cup to forget.
At RWC 2015, Fiji had the honour of kicking off the tournament with a game against hosts England at Twickenham. Fiji put in a game performance but were undone, 35-11. Five days later, the Islanders travelled west to take on Australia in Cardiff. The Wallabies set up a 22-point lead early in the second half but Fiji found their fluency thereafter to finish strongly and bring about a more respectable final scoreline of 28-13 in favour of Michael Cheika’s side.
Fiji stayed on in Cardiff to face Wales at their citadel and the game followed a similar pattern to the one against the Wallabies with the home side racking up a 17-6 lead at half-time. A 60-metre try from Vereniki Goneva and Ben Volavola’s conversion closed the gap to just four points, and with the likes of Leone Nakarawa, second-row cohort Tevita Caudate and flanker Dominiko Waqaniburotu breaking tackles at will, Fiji had a second Welsh scalp in their sights at a Rugby World Cup. However, the boot of Dan Biggar came to Wales’ rescue and they closed the game out for a 23-13 victory.
Fiji then signed off with a handsome 47-15 win over 14-man Uruguay at Milton Keynes, ending a six-game tournament losing streak in the process. Playing the lowest-ranked nation last had worked against Fiji in the ultimate ‘Pool of Death’ but they left England with their heads held high having caused all three tier one nations problems with their trademark brand of rugby, unpredictable and free-flowing – complemented by tighter defence and a more reliable set-piece.
Vereniki Goneva became Fiji’s record try scorer at Rugby World Cups when he touched down for his fifth tournament try in the RWC 2015 defeat to Wales. He had gone into the tournament level with Viliame Satala.
Waisele Serevi holds the individual record for most points by a Fijian in a Rugby World Cup match with 22 points against Namibia in 1999. Serevi converted all but one of Fiji’s nine tries and added two penalties in a 67-18 victory.
Props are unlikely match-winners but Graham Dewes followed Australia’s RWC 1991 hero Tony Daly into Rugby World Cup front-row folklore when he flopped on the ball to score a crucial try in the 2007 tournament and hand Wales another shock loss by a Pacific Island nation.
In losing 66-0 to Wales at RWC 2011, Fiji became the 10th side to be ‘nilled’ in the tournament’s history. (USA became the 11th at RWC 2015).
“It just depends on whether we are sleeping under the coconut tree or rowing the boat!”
– RWC 2007 Fiji captain Mosese Rauluni tries to explain his side’s ability to go from world-beaters one minute to fall-guys the next.
Fiji’s RWC 2015 match against Wales at the Millennium Stadium saw the cumulative attendance at the tournament pass the one million mark.
Hooker Sunia Koto became the first front-row to play for Fiji at three Rugby World Cups when he started against England at Twickenham in the RWC 2015 curtain-raiser.