Australia survived a considerable scare to clinch victory in their opening World Cup match against Fiji, who were left with a sense of injustice in defeat. Two second-half tries for the Wallabies hooker Tolu Latu swung the match in their favour before a late flourish, but Fiji can feel aggrieved at Reece Hodge’s high tackle on Peceli Yato that went unpunished and forced their star flanker off during the first half.
Hodge was sweeping round to tackle Yato, who was charging towards the try-line after Australia had been caught napping by a quick Fiji lineout. Hodge’s tackle was high with minimal use of the arms and appeared to make contact with Yato’s head. It could well have been a penalty try and certainly a card of either colour but it went unpunished, the referee Ben O’Keeffe opting against consulting the TMO.
Yato would play no further part after a breathtaking opening 25 minutes in which he inspired Fiji into an 11-8 lead. Hodge, for his part, scored Australia’s next try.
It must be said that Australia’s quality shone through in the final quarter, their set-piece – both the scrum and the driving maul – was significantly superior, and there is no guarantee that the result would have been any different had Yato stayed on the pitch and Hodge been sanctioned. They must also be given huge credit for rallying from 21-12 down in the second half, their biggest ever World Cup turnaround.
At the same time there was an unmistakable sour taste in the mouth given World Rugby’s insistence that tackles to the head will be clamped down upon. Ross Tucker, the sports scientist who played a part in developing World Rugby’s decision-making framework for high tackles was among many observes who took to social media to declare Hodge ought to have been sent off.
All in all, it is simply a great shame that Yato was not able to continue. He emerged from the tunnel but it was clear he was not coming back on when he lay down, flat on his back, evidently distraught by the side of the pitch. Fiji led by two points at the time but it was hard not consider that the contest’s telling moment. Put simply, Yato is that influential to this side. He would be for any side in the competition.
Fiji’s fast start was entirely expected, no doubt by Australia, but there was little the Wallabies could do about it. There were tears during the Fiji anthem, they then tore Australia asunder. Semi Radradra on the left wing set the tone, the former Parramatta Eels star thundering into Hodge inside the opening couple of minutes. It is often lamented that Fiji lack the control at halfback to win contests such as these but Ben Volavola began as if determined to prove that wrong and he opened the scoring with an early penalty.
Before the first 10 minutes were up, Fiji were 8-0 to the good with Yato finishing off a glorious move down the right-hand. Fiji worked the ball from left to right inside their own half and freed Josiua Tuisova, who in turn found Nayacalevu. He had the omnipresent Yato on his shoulder, who streaked clear. At this stage Australia were shellshocked. Botia was next with a thunderous hit while Yato carved through the Wallabies defence through the middle.
It was no surprise to see Hooper leading the response, getting Australia on the board with a powerful score from close range but Volavala’s accurate boot kept Fiji in the ascendancy. He continued to do so both before and after Yato made way, enough to give Fiji a half-time lead despite Hodge’s well-worked try in the right-hand corner.
Fiji were given renewed hope when their outside-centre Waisea Nayacalevu pounced on a loose ball five minutes into the second half and raced under the posts to give Fiji a nine-point lead but ultimately Australia gathered themselves and ground out a lead.
Hodge kicked Australia back to within six points after Michael Hooper’s bust up the middle and in between Latu’s two tries form close-range driving mauls, Levani Botia was sent to the sin-bin with Fiji’s discipline rapidly deteriorating, the game effectively up. Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete - both of whom were born in Fiji - added late tries for good measure but the bonus-point victory will likely be greeted more with relief than any great celebrations.