The Finals of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup kicked off at Murrayfield, where Georgia were facing off against Fiji for 7ᵗʰ place in the overall standings. The Fijians were competing in their first match of the tournament following COVID-19 issues, but soon made up for lost time with 2 tries in the opening 10 minutes. First, Nemani Nadolo picked up a bouncing ball and powered through 2 tackles to score in the corner on his return from retirement, then just a few minutes later, young flanker Johnny Dyer pushed himself over from a pick-and-go following a neat move off a lineout, Ben Volavola kicking the second try. The Georgians finally got on the board with a penalty from Tedo Abzhandadze, but Fiji hit back again, with a late switch of sides from centre Levani Botia giving Volavola an overlap on the right, which they exploited to put Josua Tuisova over in the corner, with Volavola converting. The Georgians were growing into the game though, and won a series of penalties off the restart, which eventually ended in replacement prop Giorgi Melikidze getting over the line with a pick-and-go, which Abzhandadze converted for a 10-19 halftime score.
Conditions began to improve after the break, and Fiji continued to control the game for the most part, though Peni Ravai was adjudged to have knocked on as he tried to dot the ball down on the line. Any questions that a lack of match fitness would see Fiji tire in the second half were soon answered as they only seemed to get stronger as the weather brightened, and the game was effectively over as a contest as they scored 3 tries (2 of which Volavola converted) in an 8 minute spell around the hour mark. First, Tuisova fended off Sandro Todua and rode 3 tackles before offloading to flanker Mesulame Kunavula to score in the corner, then Volavola fed a grubber to the left corner and the experienced Nadolo reacted quickest, diving down on the ball and sliding the final metres over the line, before finishing his hat trick just minutes later with a crash ball off a lineout to draw level with Vereniki Goneva at the top of the team’s scoring charts and cap off a Man of the Match performance. The Georgians didn’t give up though, and they were able to get some consolation, with flanker Beka Saghinadze crashing through the Fijian defence with 12 minutes left and riding Botia’s tackle to dot down next to the posts, and he popped up again in the final minute with a strong drive off a pick-and-go to get a second try on the day, with Abzhandadze converting both of his tries for a final score of 24-38.
With legend Mamuka Gorgodze retired and new star Beka Gorgadze missing through injury, Tornike Jalaghonia was given the start at number 8. While the 21-year-old was certainly doing well with the ball in hand and making some good metres- so much so that he surely nailed on a starting spot somewhere in the pack for their next match – I can’t help feel that his inexperience and naivety proved costly at times.
The Georgian scrum appeared to have the dominance over Fiji, but on a number of occasions, Jalaghonia would break off the back of the scrum and go for a run. While that attacking play would often be praised for improving the spectacle, it was depriving the Lelos of the territory they would have gained had they kept the ball in the scrum and kicked the resultant penalty to touch.
Conditions in Edinburgh were poor for running rugby, and the Fijians were earning some dominance at the breakdown, but some smarter play at the scrum could have seen the Fijians lose a man to the bin for persistent offending as well as giving the Lelos better areas from which to attack or put the pressure on.
What we were missing
One of the big stories of this tournament has been the shambles of Fiji’s chance to play, with a spate of COVID-19 amongst the squad leading to all 3 of their pool matches being cancelled and each match considered a 28-0 win (bonus point win) for the other team, leaving them to fight for 7ᵗʰ.
Thankfully, the trip to Britain wasn’t wholly wasted for the Fijians – who included Mesulame Kunavula, who was unable to attend his own mother’s funeral – as they put on a great show to remind everyone of their quality. With former referee Glen Jackson on Vern Cotter’s staff, the discipline is clearly improving, but not at the expense of their incredible attacking play.
In Lomani and Volavola, they have a 9 and 10 who can control the game, while the back row and the majority of the backline are incredible man-mountains who are strong enough to run right over you, but also fleet enough of foot to sashay around you and slight of hand to offload if you do somehow manage to tackle them. Fiji are a team everyone wants to see more of, and the best way to do that is exactly what Georgia needs too: regular matches against Tier 1 nations, with a fair split between home and away matches. If Fiji can get this, the sky is the limit.