Fiji went for consistency in selection on Thursday for a Rugby World Cup game against Georgia that could put the popular Pacific islanders on the cusp of the quarterfinals.
Everyone’s favorite underdog made just one change to the 15 that started and upset Australia 22-15 just under two weeks ago.
Selesitino Ravutaumada is in at right wing for Jiuta Wainiqolo, who has an ankle injury. On the bench, prop Samu Tawake replaces Mesake Doge, who went through a head injury assessment after the Australia game.
Otherwise, it’s the same lineup that sent joy through the Rugby World Cup by beating the Wallabies to move into prime position for a trip to the last eight for the first time in 16 years, which would likely be the tournament’s top feel-good story.
Coach Simon Raiwalui, who played in France during his career, said the Fijians noticed the love they’re getting from the home crowds and welcomed it.
“We definitely feel the support, you can hear it at the stadiums and we’re very appreciative,” Raiwalui said. “It’s got to do with how the boys play, the spirit that they play in.”
Fiji’s task is fairly simple. Victories over Georgia and then Portugal, results that are expected, would put the Fijians into the quarters and Australia out.
It would probably be a quarterfinal against former champion England, a matchup that might have been seen as a stretch for the Fijians previously but not now, not after beating the English in a warmup before the World Cup, then pushing Wales to the very brink to start the World Cup before the victory over Australia, another former champion.
A semifinal place would be historic for the Fijians. They can’t get ahead of themselves.
“We all know Georgia are a tough team, we know what they can bring physically, especially on the front foot,” Fiji wing Semi Radradra said. “So our aim is to weather the storm, to match their physicality as well. We know it’s going to be hard, we have to stick to our structure and hopefully we can wear them down.”
Also, Georgia is stinging from an 18-18 draw with Portugal, its great rival in the second tier of European rugby. Portugal might have even won that epic tussle if fullback Nuno Guedes had landed a last-second penalty.
In response, Georgia coach Levan Maisashvili made a sweeping seven changes to his starting 15, including bringing back scrumhalf Vasil Lobzhanidze and flyhalf Luka Matkava, who started in the loss to Australia. Three of the changes are in the pack, Georgia’s strength, with No. 8 Beka Gorgadze and hooker Shalva Mamukashvili unavailable with injury. Prop Mikheil Nariashvili takes over as captain.
Georgia’s players took some time to get over not beating Portugal, Maisashvili said.
“Yes, obviously any result other than winning against Portugal would be the same as a defeat. It had an impact on the players, on myself, it wasn’t pleasant,” he said. “It was difficult to make an analysis but we have had this match analysed and we all know that in rugby it’s a fight and every time you fall down, you have to get back on track.
“So that has given us even more motivation for the next match, and everything we could not do against Portugal, we are going to do against Fiji,” he said.
“We haven’t played as well as we can yet,” said assistant coach Joe Worsley.
“We’re hoping against Fiji we’re going to produce a performance in which our DNA — being physically dominant and aggressive towards the opposition — we’re going to see that for 80 minutes rather than just for 10 minutes here and there.”
Worsley, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, said the fast-improving Pacific islanders would be a tough test for the Lelos.
“Fiji have been playing really well for six months now,” he added. “They’ve beaten England, they’ve pushed France close. They probably should have beaten Wales and they had a very good result against Australia,” he said.
Fiji: Ilaisa Droasese, Selesitino Ravutaumada, Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Teti Tela, Simione Kuruvoli; Viliame Mata, Levani Botia, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Isoa Nasilasila, Luke Tagi, Samuel Matavesi, Eroni Mawi.
Reserves: Tevita Ikanivere, Peni Ravai, Samu Tawake, Temo Mayanavanua, Albert Tuisue, Frank Lomani, Vilimoni Botitu, Vinaya Habosi.
Georgia: Miriani Modebadze, Akaki Tabutsadze, Demur Tapladze, Giorgi Kveseladze, Davit Niniashvili, Luka Matkava, Vasil Lobzhanidze; Tornike Jalagonia, Beka Saginadze, Mikheil Gachechiladze, Konstantine Mikautadze, Lasha Jaiani, Beka Gigashvili, Tengizi Zamtaradze, Mikheil Nariashvili (captain).
Reserves: Luka Nioradze, Nika Abuladze, Irakli Aptsiauri, Nodar Cheishvili, Luka Ivanishvili, Gela Aprasidze, Tedo Abzhandadze, Tornike Kakhoidze