Having earlier this year suggested the Wallabies would launch a “smash and grab campaign” at the Rugby World Cup, coach Eddie Jones’s plans are now in danger of being foiled at the first hurdle.
Never before have the Wallabies exited the tournament at the pool stage, but they are staring at that prospect following their 22-15 loss to Fiji in Saint-Étienne.
Their quarterfinal hopes are still alive for the moment, however Monday morning’s result has heaped a mountain of pressure on the Australians ahead of their next pool match against unbeaten Wales in Lyon in a week’s time.
A Welsh triumph would consign the Wallabies to a 1-2 win-loss record before their final pool match against Portugal.
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Such a scenario would require not just a win over the Portuguese but also the aid of bonus points and other results going their way if they are to have any chance of advancing to the last eight.
It is a position in which the Wallabies have never found themselves before at a World Cup.
While they recorded defeats in the pool stage at three previous editions, each time they were under no realistic threat of missing the knockout rounds.
Now that they have their backs to the wall, the Wallabies only have themselves to blame.
Poor discipline cost them dearly in the Fiji defeat, as they were made to pay for a mammoth 18-7 penalty count against them.
Fiji converted from the kicking tee on five of those occasions through Simione Kuruvoli and Frank Lomani, building scoreboard pressure that the Wallabies could not overcome.
In fact, penalty goals proved the difference in the scoreline, as the Wallabies crossed for two tries to Fiji’s one.
The inexperience of the Wallabies squad on the World Cup stage was laid bare in the build-up to Fiji’s sole try, scored by Josua Tuisova just after half-time.
A lack of communication between two of their younger squad members, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Carter Gordon, saw a Fijian box kick allowed to bounce, with Tuisova on hand to collect the crumbs before he galloped his way over the goal line.
It was a moment that best summed up the Wallabies’ performance, with Jones admitting after the match that his side was a “poor version” of what it could be.
Fiji earns just reward with famous victory
To Jones’s credit, he felt Fiji thoroughly deserved the win that saw the Pacific Islands nation bounce back from its opening 32-26 loss to Wales in Bordeaux.
It was just Fiji’s third win over the Wallabies in Test history and the first since 1954.
Fiji was wise to use its scoring opportunities when they were made available via Wallabies penalties and this illustrated the growing maturity of coach Simon Raiwalui’s squad.
They showed patience when it was required and did not lose their nerve when the Wallabies cut their 14-point lead in half late in the match, a point at which previous Fijian sides would likely have faltered.
Only four years ago, Fiji led the Wallabies 21-12 in the second half of their World Cup pool match in Japan, before conceding 27 unanswered points to go down 39-21.
This time around, Fiji produced an 80-minute display against the Wallabies and could count themselves unlucky not to be undefeated after two matches, having fallen just short of overhauling Wales with a last-ditched effort in their tournament opener.
Fiji are expected to win their next two pool matches, against Georgia in Bordeaux on October 1 and Portugal in Toulouse eight days later.
Jones to go back to the drawing board
All is not lost for the Wallabies, given a win over Wales will breathe life back into their tilt in France.
And what they do have in their favour is Jones’s coaching IQ, especially inside the World Cup arena.
Jones has led both the Wallabies (2003) and England (2019) to appearances in the final, while he was a key adviser to South Africa coach Jake White when the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2007.
On each occasion, however, those squads were overflowing with outstanding talent and that can’t be said about the current crop of Wallabies.
Two of their genuine world-class players, captain Will Skelton (calf) and prop Taniela Tupou (hamstring), were sorely missed against Fiji after both being ruled out through injury.
Skelton and Tupou will also miss the Wales encounter in a major blow to Jones, who can ill-afford to lose any more of his troops.
Improving discipline will also be front of mind for the veteran coach, who — more than ever before — must dig deeper into his bag of tricks if he is to navigate the Wallabies back on course.