France struggle past game Fiji
October 16, 1999
France try-scorer Christophe Dominici breaks from deep against Fiji
© Getty Images
Fiji has never beaten France in four attempts but thanks to Kiwi Brad Johnstone they never had a better chance than today. New Zealand seemingly exports more coaches than sheep these days and Fiji has benefited more than most. He has grafted the fifteen-a-side disciplines onto the exuberance of the Fijian's natural game.
That they ultimately failed again they will blame on a miserable opening half and some absurd decisions from one of the world's most respected referees, Paddy O'Brien. He denied them a perfectly good try in the first half and gave a dubious penalty try against the islanders in the second.
The opening ten minutes proved that France had done their tactical homework. Rather than take on the Fijians in the wide open spaces they asked Christophe Lamaison to pin them back into the corners, which he did repeatedly. Meanwhile Califano, back to full fitness, and Tournaire were hugely enjoying themselves at the set scrum.
Richard Dourthe kicked a penalty in the sixth minute after referee O'Brien reversed a penalty award; Simon Raiwalui was fingered as the culprit of some skullduggery. France failed to cross the line from an attacking lineout but the Fiji defence soon strayed offside to give Dourthe his opportunity.
Dourthe and Nicky Little had already missed one apiece when the Fijian centre levelled the scores with a sitter on the twenty-minute mark. They were to enjoy parity only briefly.
Yet another deep kick, which fullback Alfred Uluinayau could only knock into touch, gave France a close range lineout. The back peel was halted inches short of the line but when the ball was recycled the beefy number eight Christophe Juillet carried Gregg Smith and Jacob Rauluni across the line with him. Dourthe's conversion gave France a 10-3 advantage and offered some relief to an anxious crowd.
In a reversal of expectations, the Fijian's handling was uncharacteristically hesitant while France lost four of their own lineouts. The occasion seemed to weigh on the islanders, and the closest they came to a first half score was a spilled interception attempt by winger Fero Lasagavibau.
Meanwhile French skipper Raphael Ibanez was yellow carded, somewhat harshly, as Fijian prop Joeli Veitayaki was actually headbutted by Califano.
Next up was a comedy of errors, not least from referee O'Brien. A quick penalty by Castaignede sent Dominici over the line. The try was awarded by the referee before a linesman pointed out the pass was a yard or so forward. Dourthe kicked the penalty which O'Brien allowed them to re-take.
At the other end of the park, breakaway Setareki Tawake crossed for a touchdown when French fullback Ugo Mola spilled the ball in a tackle. Bizarrely O'Brien ruled for a knock on and France was able to take their 13-3 lead into the dressing room at half time. They had just played their get-out-of-jail-card, but neither side seemed willing to play too much rugby.
Whatever Brad Johnstone said at half time had the desired effect as Fiji proceeded to score 16 points without reply. Little had pulled back three with a penalty before Fiji finally produced the magic they are famed for. Fullback Uluinayau hit the three quarter line at pace and wrong-footed fullback Mola with ease before touching down for a try under the sticks.
Little kicked that conversion and followed it with two penalties, once having charged down Lamaison's clearance kick himself, to give the visitors a six point lead going into the last quarter.
The French crowd was silenced and they stayed that way until the French scrum finally won a penalty try. Trailing by six points France opted for a five-metre scrum rather than attempting the three point penalty. They eventually persuaded O'Brien to walk under the posts but not before he had yellow carded the entire Fijian front row and both sides had endured never-ending series of strength-sapping scrums on the Fijian line.
France had a perilous one point lead but there was still ten minutes to endure while Fiji desperately looked for a way through the thin blue line. Dourthe did nothing for the crowd's nerves when missing a penalty but Lamaison took over the kicking duties and put France four points up.
In a final aberration the referee then allowed French substitute Xavier Garbajosa to chip forward 20 yards into a team-mate's arms. The whistle came but only after France had finished the move over the Fiji line.
France did manage a final score in the fifth minute of injury time as Dominici crossed after Califano and Benazzi had ripped open the heart of the visitors' defence.
Fiji has still not bested the French and they paid the price for a lacklustre first half display. While their set-piece is much improved it is at the expense of their natural running game, which appeared to be true in the first forty, then it's a high price to pay.
France won without every looking comfortable. They played the correct tactics but their lineout was a shambles and they made heavy weather of beating Fiji in what were perfect conditions. They will also be lucky if they have second row Fabien Pelous available for their next matches as the number four appeared to land a couple of unhealthy stamps on the head of a prostrate Gregg Smith. France won the group but will have to improve immensely if they are to trouble the latter stages of the competition.
Scorers: France 28: Tries: Dominici, Juillet, Pen. Try; Cons: Dourthe 2; Pens: Dourthe 2 Lamaison. Fiji 19: Tries: Uluinayau;. Cons: N Little; Pens: N Little 4
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