Marseille: Fiji face England on Sunday bidding, for the third time, to become the first Tier Two team to make the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, having come so agonisingly close in their last opportunity 16 years ago.
The islanders actually made the last eight of the inaugural competition in 1987, despite losing two of their three pool games, but were comfortably dispatched by France.
It was a different story in 2007, however, as they famously beat Wales in a Nantes pool classic to make the last eight and a meeting with champions-in-waiting South Africa.
It looked to be heading for a relatively routine for the Springboks as they dominated the first half, led 13-3 at the break and stretched it to 20-6 with a counter-attacking JP Pietersen try, with Fiji then suffering a yellow card for centre Seru Rabeni.
However, what followed was one of the most exciting and tense 20 minutes in World Cup history as 14-man Fiji suddenly found the explosive attacking verve that has made them such a success in Sevens for so long.
Winger Vilimoni Delasau chased his own kick for a try and two minutes later the Velodrome was in uproar as, after a thrilling length of the field attack, captain Mosese Rauluni slipped through a gap to send Sireli Bobo over for another try.
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Seremaia Bai converted to make it 20-20 with 20 minutes to go, which was when Springbok captain John Smit famously got his men into a huddle and told them he could see in their eyes what he had seen in those of the Australia and New Zealand players as they were upset by France and England the previous day.
“He told them to snap out of it and it was a magnificent example of leadership under the most intense pressure,” coach Jake White said after the match.
A Percy Montgomery penalty edged South Africa back into the lead but Fiji were on fire and were inches away from another stunning try 14 minutes from time.
Lock Ifereimi Rawaqa looked certain to score but Pietersen, maybe energised by Smit’s uplifting words, crashed into him and somehow found the strength to roll him into touch before the big man was able to get the ball down and the TMO of the day ruled no try.
It was as close as Fiji, or any other Tier Two team, have ever got to the last four as a minute later flanker Juan Smith got South Africa’s fourth try and Butch James then glossed the scoreline to 37-20. They swept past Argentina in the semis and went on to win the final against England.
Bai is back with Fiji as kicking coach in France and remembered that classic weekend of upsets — and near upsets — as he looked ahead to Sunday’s clash in the same stadium.
“It reminds me of the 2007 tournament where everybody wrote England off (after their 36-0 pool-stage defeat by South Africa),” he said this week.
“They have shown how good they are, with players who have played on the big stage. We respect that and take it on board. Now we need to see how we can come back and do well in this quarter-final.” Bai, who spent two years in the English Premiership with Leicester, said Fiji’s first win over England at Twickenham in August was an obvious lift but, as he knows so well from 2007, “form is out of the window” once the knockout stage begins.
“It gives us great confidence going into the game that we have beaten them, but the most important thing in a playoff is that anything can happen,” he said. “So we have to regroup, refocus and we will have to prepare well for this resilient English side.”