Uruguay inflicted one of the great Rugby World Cup shocks on Fiji, holding out for a famous win over the supremely talented Pacific islanders. A first-half blitz saw the Uruguayans run in three tries inside the opening 25 minutes.
Santiago Arata, Manuel Diana, and Juan Manuel Cat all dotting down in a back-and-forth affair. The boot of Felipe Berchesi helped them take a 12 -24 half-time lead.
And though Fiji ran in five tries in the contest, their second-half scores went unconverted and two penalties from Berchesi kept them out of reach.
Uruguay had only ever won two games at the World Cup and are ranked nine places below Fiji, but they capitalized on an error-strewn performance by John McKee’s side, whose hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages above Wales or Australia are now dashed.
The thrilling game had a much deeper significance as it was played in Kamaishi, one of the towns hardest-hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated north-eastern Japan.
The stadium, the only purpose-built venue at the Rugby World Cup, was built on the site of a school destroyed by the waves and hosting the match was seen as a powerful sign of recovery. As Japan’s Crown Prince Akishino looked on, the crowd observed a moment’s silence to remember the more than 1,000 people killed in the tsunami, several children in the crowd removing their caps and bowing their heads in prayer.
With emotions running high, Fiji were first on the score sheet in the seventh minute, Mesulame Dolokoto dotting down to complete a slick line-out move that came after a delightful chip and catch by fullback Alivereti Veitokani.
But Uruguay hit back via a mazy run from scrum-half Arata, one of the smallest players on the pitch, who evaded several tackles before touching down under the posts for an easy conversion.
Fiji’s explosive power eventually told as prop Eroni Mawi bundled over from close range. But Uruguay refused to go away and again took the lead as back row Diana barged over for a converted try.
And the minnows leapt further ahead with 26 minutes on the clock, Cat finishing off a flowing move down the left and a penalty just before half-time resulted in a deserved 24-12 lead at the break.
Fiji had taken a shock lead of their own into the second half of their defeat by Australia, but this time they found themselves needing a dramatic comeback.
After Josh Matavesi missed a relatively simple penalty that would have steadied the nerves, lock Api Ratuniyarawa finished off a move that featured a sensational off-load.
And replacement scrum-half Nikola Matawalu dived over following an outrageous dummy to closed the gap to 22-27 and set up a nail-biting last 10 minutes.
Fiji threw everything at Uruguay, but a Felipe Berchesi penalty took them out of sight and they clung on for dear life in the final stages, Matawalu’s last-minute try not enough to prevent the enormous shock.