OSAKA, 1 Oct. - A preview of the Pool D match between Georgia and Fiji, which kicks off at 14.15 on Thursday at Hanazono Rugby Stadium.
The Big Picture
Provided Pool D leaders Wales and Australia avoid any dramatic upsets at the hands of their Tier 2 opponents, Thursday's clash between Georgia and Fiji will likely decide third place in the group and, with it, the all-important automatic qualification berth for RWC 2023.
The Flying Fijians, wounded after two opening defeats but buoyed by the bonus points they claimed along the way, can leapfrog the Lelos into third place with a win tomorrow. Influential forward Peceli Yato is back in the side after his concussion against Australia, and starting at number eight for only the third time in his test career.
The Georgians will no doubt aim to counter Fiji's movement by focusing on the tried and trusted forward dominance that steamrollered Uruguay in Kumagaya four days ago.
Following heavy squad rotation in their opening two matches, Georgia's coaching staff have opted for their most-seasoned starting XV yet in Japan in terms of World Cup experience.
The Lelos will field only four of the starters who defeated Uruguay, meaning most of the bodies on the pitch at kick-off will be well-rested despite the four-day turnaround.
Regular skipper Merab Sharikadze reclaims the captain's armband as he makes the starting line-up for the first time at RWC 2019, alongside four-time World Cup campaigners Mamuka Gorgodze and David Kacharava.
"You'd be fair in saying that if Georgia wins this game, we'll qualify for the next World Cup," coach Milton Haig said after the Lelos announced the squad.
"Nobody else could catch us unless there are some huge, huge upsets. So we are confident that if we get this job done, we'll have qualified (for RWC 2023).
"This is what we've worked hard for over the past three years. It's come down to this and we always knew it would."
Fiji, on the other hand, will be looking at third place as more of a consolation prize, having come into the tournament under a dark-horse banner with high hopes of progressing through the pool stage.
"There is a lot at stake in the game on Thursday and, looking at other results, that may have a bearing on the final pool placings," said coach John McKee, who, like Haig, hails from New Zealand.
"But it's not only the play-offs. Finishing third in the pool is also important because it gives us automatic qualification for the next World Cup.
"The players obviously believe that they still have a lot to show the world and what Fiji are capable of. That's our motivation for the match - not only to match Georgia in the critical parts of the game, and particularly around the set-piece and breakdown, but to create some opportunities for us in attack to ease our attacking talents."
Fiji's starting XV, like Georgia's, is made up mostly of players from their opening match (against Australia), with 11 changes to the starters that lost to Uruguay.
The two sides have played each other twice since RWC 2015, both times in Suva. Georgia won 14-3 in 2016, while Fiji won 37-15 last year. Their only other encounter was in Tbilisi in 2012, when Fiji won 24-19.
Form guide (most recent matches first)
Played 3 - Georgia 1W - Fiji 2W
In the spotlight
Thursday's game will no doubt be a classic clash of rugby cultures, the Flying Fijians with their fast and flowing rugby versus the burly Georgian forward pack and their set-piece strength.
Both sides will be looking to their talismanic back-row players for inspiration: Mamuka 'Gorgodzilla' Gorgodze lining up for the Lelos, and Peceli Yato for the Fijians.
Tactically, Georgia coach Haig is not expecting anything different from his compatriot's side.
"How (Fiji) play the game is how they've always played the game. They'll look to run the ball, I'm absolutely certain of that. This will be the third time in three years that we've played them. It's not going to be anything new compared with the last two times.
"First and foremost we need to defend very well because Fiji is an attacking side, but also we want to make sure that when we get opportunities we convert them into points. We've done our homework and hopefully we can match everything they give us, and then some."
Both teams are resting the vast majority of starters from their most recent match.
Georgia's starting XV features 12 of the players who started in the opening 43-14 defeat by Wales. Lasha Khmaladze, Alexander Todua and Merab Sharikadze replace Miriani Modebadze (on the bench), Tedo Abzhandadze and Tamaz Mchedlidze, with the latter two left out of the squad. Only second row Konstantin Mikautadze and winger Giorgi Kveseladze will have started all three of the Lelos' RWC 2019 matches come kick-off on Thursday.
Player of the Match against Uruguay, Otari Giorgadze, is also on the bench, alongside fellow youngsters Guram Gogichashvili, Beka Saginadze, and Gela Aprasidze. Stand-in captain for the Uruguay game, Jaba Bregvadze, is also a replacement.
Fiji have made 11 changes to the XV that started against Uruguay. Only Manasa Saulo, Leone Nakarawa, Dominiko Waqaniburotu, pictured above against Uruguay, and Semi Radradra return. Thirteen of the XV who started against Australia in their opening RWC 2019 game return for this match. Manasa Saulo (who starts instead of Peni Ravai) and Semi Kunatani (who starts instead of Viliame Mata) are the only differences.
Perhaps most notably for Fiji, Peceli Yato returns after missing the Uruguay match. He left the field with concussion in the Australia game, which Fiji lost 39-21.
Stats and Trivia
Georgia can win two World Cup matches in one campaign for the second time, having achieved that feat in 2015.
Merab Sharikadze is Georgia's third captain at this World Cup following Jaba Bregvadze (v Uruguay) and Mikheil Nariashvili (v Wales). Georgia are the first Tier 2 country in Rugby World Cup history to start three different captains in a single World Cup campaign.
Mamuka Gorgodze will play his 14th World Cup match. Only Merab Kvirikashvili (15) has played more for Georgia in the Rugby World Cup.
Fiji's win over Uruguay at RWC 2015 was their only victory at the RWC in their past nine matches in the competition.
Both Georgia and Fiji have scored seven tries at RWC 2019. Georgia's previous best was scoring five in a single campaign in 2007 and 2015, while Fiji's best came in 2015 when they scored 10 tries in the tournament.
"Everybody knows how Fiji plays so, defensively, you've got to be on alert. But you can't beat teams by just being one-dimensional. If we're going to test teams and win big games we've got to be able to use the ball as well." – Georgia coach Milton Haig.
"(Peceli Yato's return from concussion) is a big boost for the team. He is one of our big players for this tournament and he is going to have a big impact on the team. Ball-carrying is a big part of Peceli's game and he is really going to help the team go forward against Georgia." – Fiji captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu.
"It's quite obvious at this World Cup that the ball has been slippery (due to the humidity). The coaches in preseason used to put the ball in water with soap and we used to train with that. Hopefully that slippery soap and water will help us now." – Georgia captain Merab Sharikadze.