KAMAISHI – Short turnarounds at a Rugby World Cup can be tricky and Fiji learned it the hard way after Uruguay pulled off the first upset of the tournament with a 30-27 win in Kamaishi on Wednesday.
Four days after Fiji’s agonising loss to Australia in Sapporo, coach John McKee effected a dozen changes to the starting line-up for what was supposed to be the perfect rebound against opponents the Pacific Islanders beat 68-7 last year.
Scheduling has long been an issue for tournament organisers as rugby players need more recovery time than many other sports, and this was never clearer than when Japan had to play Scotland just four days after their famous win against South Africa in 2015.
Eddie Jones’ side lost that match and did not qualify from the pool.
This time around, World Rugby have made a concerted effort to make scheduling fairer, with many of the tier-one nations having to play matches after a short turnaround.
It is something all the teams will have to deal with and they would do well to see Fiji’s loss as a cautionary tale.
Leading up to the clash on Wednesday, McKee had given his players plenty of rest time, encouraging them to spend time on the beach.
However, once the match started it looked like many of his players were still on the beach.
Leone Nakawara, one of McKee's most trusted lieutenants and a survivor from the Australia match, was particularly guilty in the early exchanges, twice losing the ball when trying to make an ambitious offload in the tackle.
His second error proved costly as Uruguay scrumhalf Santiago Arata pounced on the loose ball to score Los Tecos’ first try.
Fiji dominated in terms of possession and territory but were let down by a litany of handling errors.
“Everything went wrong today,” rued captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu after the loss. “It's not how we wanted the game to go today. We underestimated a very good Uruguay team.”
Fiji also missed five kicks, leaving 11 points on the board, two of which were horribly dragged wide by stand-in flyhalf Josh Matavesi.
The nature of his team’s performance will infuriate McKee, who said he specifically warned his players against complacency.
“I hope we didn’t (underestimate Uruguay),” said McKee.
“It was one of the things we talked about for us coming off the short-turnaround and with it being Uruguay’s first match of World Cup 2019 they would be very focussed on this match and see it as an opportunity.”
“It is certainly something that we looked at and tried to take the same mindset into this game as we did with Australia.”
Having claimed two bonus points in this match – one for scoring five tries, the other for losing by less than eight points – Fiji still have a slim chance of qualifying from Pool D.
McKee now must re-gather his players and make sure they have the correct mindset for the match against Georgia next week.