Uruguay's greatest day leaves Flying Fijians stunned
TOKYO, 25 Sep - This was the day at RWC 2019 that was supposed to be about far more than rugby, but by producing the greatest result in their history, Uruguay gave the people of Kamaishi something to remember on the field as well as off it.
Kamaishi's smart new Recovery Memorial Stadium looked a picture, testament to the prodigious efforts to rebuild after the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Iwate area on 11 March, 2011. Even the weather obliged, a temperature of 22C offering both sides every incentive to run with the ball. Uruguay needed no second invitation to attack, but when they needed to defend in the second half they flung themselves into every tackle.
Los Teros raced to a 24-12 half-time lead by scoring three tries to two, even though they went behind early on when a neat lineout move ended with hooker Mesulame Dolokoto scoring his first test try.
Six minutes later and they were in front, scrum-half Santiago Arata, above, wriggling free of two challenges as he jinked and finally tumbled over the line under the posts. Felipe Berchesi converted for 7-5, the first of 15 points in an almost immaculate display that earned him the award for player of the match.
Berchesi said: "It's unreal. We lost by 60 points to them in November. It's outstanding. It's a really good day for Uruguayan rugby today. I hope everybody could see that, and everybody joins to play rugby in Uruguay. We need more players."
Amid all the emotion, Uruguay's coach, Esteban Meneses, remained outwardly calm. "First, congratulations to the 31 players," he said. "I love this. We have been preparing for this match for four years - we are a team and we win like a team."
Fiji re-took the lead when prop Eroni Mawi dived over the top of a ruck to touch down. This time Josh Matavesi converted but the advantage was short-lived: Uruguay made the most of some clean lineout ball and number eight Manuel Diana forced his way over.
Berchesi's conversion made it 14-12, but their best was yet to come. Berchesi found centre Juan Manuel Cat in midfield and he played a neat one-two with winger Rodrigo Silva before running in unchallenged. Berchesi added the extras and then kicked a penalty before half-time.
Four years ago, Fiji beat Los Teros 47-15 in the pool stage, but any chance of a repeat relied on a quick change of fortune at the start of the second half. A penalty for an early tackle gave Matavesi a very presentable chance from just to the right of the post, but he sliced wide. Two minutes later he had another kick, when not even three Uruguay tacklers could stop giant second-row Api Ratuniyarawa barging over, but this time Matavesi hooked to the right, leaving Fiji seven points adrift.
For all Uruguay's feverish tackling, it was shaping up to be a very long 25 minutes as they sought to keep the Fijians at bay. Instead, 13 phases of attacking play culminated in a penalty which Berchesi slotted over to make it 27-17.
El tradicional saludo de esta Rugby World Cup 2019 de @RugbyUruguay #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/3o3isPAXDU— Rugby World Cup ES (@rugbyworldcupes) September 25, 2019
That equalled Uruguay's record points total in a RWC match, but would it be enough? It began to look less likely when replacement scrum-half Nikola Matawalu touched down for Fiji, but Ben Volavola was no more successful with his conversion attempt than Matavesi had been.
How Fiji must long for a kicker like Berchesi. He showed how to do it, extending the lead to eight points with five minutes left with his third penalty.
Matawalu eventually scored his second try, and Fiji's fifth, but it was in added time and Volavola's conversion hit the upright, which rather summed up their match.
Fiji did earn two bonus points in defeat but that was little consolation to their coach, John McKee, who said: "Credit to Uruguay, they got a great result today. We were off the pace and critical errors gifted them tries. We just didn't have the mental toughness to get back into the game."