RWC 2019 Pool Game 10: Uruguay stun Fiji in emotional Kamaishi

The 2019 Rugby World Cup has been set alight by it’s first upset, with unfancied Uruguay stunning Fiji 30-27 in an emotional occasion at Kamaishi Memorial Stadium, with the game preceded by a tribute to the members of the local community lost in the devastating tsunami of 2011.

Los Teros had suffered a 68-7 defeat at the hands of the Flying Fijians just last year, and also went down 47-15 to the same opponent at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. But they took advantage of a much-changed Fijian outfit – 12 from the side that performed so well against Australia – to build up a 24-14 lead by half-time.

The boot of flyhalf Felipe Berchesi did further damage in the second half, as his side stuck to their task with incredible determination to hold off a late Fijian comeback and record the biggest result in the country’s rugby history, despite being outscored by five tries to three.

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All the pre-match predictions favoured a fairly heavy victory for the Fijians, and it was they who clicked into gear the quicker, with running threats across the park requiring the Uruguayan defence to be on point from the off.

They struck first, a slick lineout play using a dummy run infield to attract attention, before a cute pass back to hooker Mesulame Dolokoto saw him cross in the corner with the Uruguayans still set to defend a driving maul. And with conditions more favourable than we’ve seen for the majority of matches, and the ball sticking to hand with greater regularity as a result, the Flying Fijians natural running game was looking like making it a long afternoon for Los Teros.

Uruguay were making life more difficult for themselves by playing long sequences of multiple phases without really going anywhere, a tactic that would surely burn them energy-wise in the latter stages. But just as Fiji were ramping up the pressure, making easy yards and using the width of the pitch to stretch their opponents, they came unstuck.

Shifting across their own 10 metre line, a loose pass missed it’s mark and fell to the ground, where it was pounced upon by Uruguayan hooker German Kessler. He popped the ball up off the floor for scrumhalf Santiago Arata, who burst through a gap to the edge of the 22 but had his path to the line blocked by three defenders. Yet somehow he stepped the first, brushed off the second, and wriggled away from the third, to literally fall under the posts for a terrific score.

Suitably chastened, Fiji went straight up the other end to bag their second. Another tidy lineout play saw a wraparound and reverse pass create a hole for Dolokoto to charge through. And after several damaging carries got them within a metre, prop Erani Mawi dove over at the second time of asking to dot down, although there was a question as to whether he had propelled himself off the floor with his knees.

But that first try had pumped the Uruguayan tyres up significantly, and the see-sawing contest continued when they grabbed a second almost from the restart.

It was the fruits of their own labour, a charge down on Fiji’s returning clearance from the kick-off, backed up by Santiago Civetta shepherding winger Vereneki Goneva into touch for a 10 metre lineout. Their first driving maul brought a penalty, but the second forged a platform for a succession of pick and drives that ended with no.8 Manuel Diana powering his way over the chalk. Flyhalf Felipe Berchesi slotted his second conversion, and after a thrilling first quarter it was Uruguay with a surprise 14-12 advantage.

Berchesi was required in defence to thwart Fiji’s next attack, a timely ball and all tackle on Filipo Nakosi sending the pill into touch as the dangerous Semi Radrada loomed. But there were signs that the Pacific Islanders were a tad stunned and frustrated by the situation they found themselves in, with a few errors and poor decisions creeping in to their play.

One such oversight was Goneva and fullback Alivereti Veitokani leaving a midfield bomb from Los Teros to each other in the 25th minute, allowing the ball to bounce in between them and into opposition hands. And when the ball was shifted to the flank, a missed tackle from Jale Vatubua stepping out of the line gave Berchesi the chance to find numbers outside him, and centre Juan Manuel Cat and winger Rodrigo Silva combined brilliantly to pass their way through a fractured defence for Cat to run in an incredible third.

It was Uruguay beating Fiji at their own game.

It’s amazing what a few tries does for your confidence and belief, but the men from South America were now fanning across the park in tandem, making dominant hits to force the Fijians backwards, and ramping up their linespeed to choke their space. And if anyone was going to add to their tally in the 10 minutes before half-time, it looked more likely to be the Uruguayans.

They did exactly that on 37 minutes when a high shot gave Berchesi another look at the posts, and he took it to open up a 24-12 lead at the break. Fiji were now officially in shock, and if they didn’t lift the lethargy and lack of urgency after the break, they were staring down the barrel at a major upset.

They butchered a textbook five-pointer just over a minute after the restart, Goneva carving through the midfield and releasing lock Tevita Ratuva out wide, only for his pass back inside to Leone Nakarawa for the run home to fall behind its target, and allow Uruguay to clear.

But a clear directive at half-time from coach John McKee was to run direct and stop throwing the miracle ball, and their next attack had their opponents scrambling and conceding a penalty to hold them out. Skipper Dominiko Waqaniburotu opted for 3pts, only to see Josh Matavesi push his attempt wide. It was turning into one of those days.

But the momentum shift was palpable, and having worked themselves back into the red zone off a lineout, the two locks combined with Ratuva felled five metres short of the line, and the ball recycled for Api Ratuniyarawa to barrel his way over for a much-needed riposte. The score was tainted somewhat by the sight of Matavesi shanking another kick past the uprights, but the comeback was definitely on.

Coach McKee introduced Ben Volavola and Nikola Matawalu before the hour, to inject some fresh impetus to the Fijian attack. But Los Teros weren’t about to throw away their impending glory, and after Berchesi had pushed one penalty attempt wide, he succeeded with another after his team mates had forced an infringement. 27-17 with a quarter to go.

Volavola was doing a good job of flattening the Fijian attack, giving his backline a structure and helping his side get across the gainline as a result. And after five minutes of sustained attacking pressure, the alert Matawalu dummied from the base of a ruck to dive over from a couple of metres, although another 2pts went begging off Volavola’s boot this time.

Uruguay were fighting hard for the miracle, scrambling to cover, jagging tackles, and putting their bodies on the line for the cause. Their work, commitment and desperation across the park was inspiring, and when Fiji went off their feet with six minutes to go, Berchesi twisted the knife even further.

The blue wall ranged itself across the field to protect their lead, but a Matawalu line break looked to be the catalyst for another five-pointer for Fiji. However, he was lacking in support and his delayed pass was spilled by a jaded Matavesi. They came again off a lineout, rumbling forward this time with just 15 seconds left for Volavola to stretch for the line, only for the TMO to rule he had knocked on in grounding.

With the siren gone their fate was already sealed, but play came back for a penalty. Fiji took the scrum option, and again Matawalu showed his worth by peeling off the back and sniping his way through a couple of tackles to find the line for his second. But it was all too late, and we were left with the bizarre sight of Volavola lining up the conversion knowing the game was already gone, and the tears of joy already pouring from Uruguayan eyes.

It isn’t quite up there with the ‘Brighton Miracle’, but I wouldn’t rule out somebody somewhere – probably not far from Montevideo – making a movie to celebrate it. However, the winner on the day was the game of rugby, and the fitting tribute it provided the people of Kamaishi.

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URUGUAY 30 (Santiago Arata, Manuel Diana, Juan Manuel Cat try; Felipe Berchesi 3 cons, 3 pens) defeated FIJI 27 (Nikola Matawalu 2, Mesulame Dolokoto, Erani Mawi, Api Ratuniyarawa tries, Josh Matavesi con) HT 24-12 at Kamaishi Recovery Stadium, Kamaishi

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