Australia captain Michael Hooper admitted his team had to “go back to basics” in order to finally see off Fiji 39-21 in their opening pool D match on Saturday.
Following a bruising first half and a disastrous start to the second period, the 2015 World Cup finalists found themselves nine points behind with the Pacific Islanders sensing a first win in 65 years.
But the introduction of scrum-half Will Genia, winning his 106th cap, and a return to a forward-focused, set-piece-dominated game plan saw the Wallabies pull away to a crucial victory.
“The coaching staff made good changes and brought on good experience and that helped calm us down,” Hooper, pictured above making a break in the game, said. “They came on with some really good messages and we went back to basics and it paid off.”
With the score poised at 21-15, Genia’s first contribution was to send Australia 40 metres down field with a towering kick. A succession of lineouts and rolling mauls followed as the Wallaby pack finally started to strangle Fiji into submission.
With referee Ben O’Keeffe warning Fiji after they had given away three successive penalties in their own 22, Australia hooker Tolu Latu dived over to pull his team within a point.
“Credit to the boys, there was no real panic within the team. ‘Hoops’ (Hooper) and our playmakers did a a real good job out there at calling us in and making sure we kept composed and kept playing the way we wanted to play instead of playing into their game,” said Latu, who soon found himself at the back of another unstoppable rolling maul after Fiji centre Levani Botia finally got the yellow card.
“To get one try I was ecstatic and then a second – I couldn’t believe it,” Latu said. “I was wanting to get a hat-trick but that would have been selfish and I was blowing at the end.”
Things had looked very different in the first half, with Fiji at their rampaging best and a clearly rattled Australia unable to find the accuracy needed to combat the white tide.
Open-side flanker Peceli Yato set the tone with what must be one of the great 27 minutes of individual brilliance at a World Cup. In his limited time on the field, the Clermont Auvergne man made 80m, beat two defenders, turned the ball over and scored a try.
His departure after a crunching collision with Wallaby winger Reece Hodge was a major blow for Fiji. The 26-year-old failed his head injury assessment (HIA) and will be out ruled out of his team’s clash against Uruguay on Wednesday.
“To win these big games we need to have a good start and we achieved that but couldn’t finish it out,” Fiji coach John McKee (NZL) said.
“There are a number of factors I have mentioned – losing Yato and Viliame Mata, two back-rowers, was critical when you have to swap over a lock into the back row. It had a big effect on our game in the second half.
“But we are still right in this tournament and we will be watching with interest to see how Australia and Wales go.”
Those two go head-to-head in Tokyo on Sunday, 29 September, with the winner primed to top pool D. Wallaby coach Michael Cheika was typically relaxed as he looked ahead, despite the scare his team had been given.
“We are not looking for perfection, we got tested, and they got us a bit on the hop early on, came out with a lot of aggression, but once we got our rhythm and flow we were able to get back in the contest,” Cheika said.
For Fiji there is no let up, with Uruguay waiting in Kamaishi on Wednesday.