The quarter-finals are confirmed. Fiji were the last side to qualify for the knockout phase of Rugby World Cup 2023 in the final match of the pool stage on Sunday evening, but the night was Portugal’s as they recorded their first-ever tournament victory in dramatic style in Toulouse.
The 24-23 final score also dashed Australia’s hopes of reaching the last eight at the very last – the losing bonus point good enough for Fiji to go through on the head-to-head rule.
After a tight but utterly engaging first half ended 3-3, Raffaele Storti held off two defenders to score the game’s first try, his third in the tournament, five minutes into the second period.
That seemed to galvanise Fiji. They replied almost instantly, Levani Botia forcing his way over from short-range after a promising Portuguese attack deep in their own half was overturned deep in Fiji territory and Vinaya Habosi had eaten up the metres.
But Botia was yellow carded minutes later for a dangerous tackle, and Portugal took advantage. Prop Francisco Fernandes crashed over from a lineout-maul move. Fiji levelled 17 minutes later through a prop of their own, Mesake Doge, also crossing the try line from close range.
Two Frank Lomani penalties in the closing minutes looked to have ended the match as a contest – but Portugal had other ideas, and weren’t willing to stop fighting until the match was done. With the clock ticking down, Storti outpaced Lomani out wide, fixed the last defender and popped the ball inside for Rodrigo Marta to score. The nerveless Samuel Marques then slotted a conversion that, in the situation, was very missable to give Portugal their historic victory.
Wales and Argentina kick off quarter-final proceedings in Marseille next Saturday, after the final round of the pool phase delivered four official blockbuster knockout matches.
Then there’s the mouth-watering prospect of Ireland-New Zealand at Stade de France later the same day; before England play Fiji on Sunday, again in Marseille, and France-South Africa rounds out the last-eight collisions back in Saint-Denis that same evening.
Heading into the final round of the pool phase, six of those quarter-final places were still open. Only Wales and England were already certain of continuing their Rugby World Cup adventure to the knockout phase proper.
For the remaining sides with serious quarter-final ambitions – there was the small matter of an unofficial ‘round-of-16’ to navigate in the final phase of the pools.
Mateo Carreras’ hat-trick helped Argentina beat Japan 39-27 in an end-to-end eight-try thriller in Nantes on Sunday to set up a last-eight match against Wales next weekend.
Meanwhile, second row Amato Fakatava’s chip and chase in the 16th minute of an encounter that never let up from start to finish is one for the tournament’s highlight reel.
Los Pumas’ quarter-final opponents had been grateful to a hat-trick hero of their own the previous day. Louis Rees-Zammit’s second-half triple saw them pull away from Georgia late on – who had closed to within five points shortly after the hour. But Rees-Zammit’s second and third touchdowns, and George North’s 80th-minute score ensured Wales – like France, Ireland and England - topped their pool with four wins from four.
But England needed a late match-winning try and then a match-saving tackle from veteran Danny Care to beat Samoa 18-17 in Lille.
On the other side of the draw, Leicester Fainga’anuku scored a hat-trick in 28 second-half minutes as a Damian McKenzie-inspired New Zealand validated their quarter-final ticket with an 11-try 73-0 win over Uruguay.
McKenzie – starting at full-back for the first time since 2021 – was at the heart of just about everything good the All Blacks did as they put more than 50 points on their opponents for the third match in a row.
And there was plenty of ‘good’ to go round. After McKenzie finally broke the deadlock after 20 frenetic opening minutes, in which three tries had been rescinded on review, New Zealand were simply irresistible.
New Zealand’s opponents in Saint-Denis at the weekend are Ireland, who have won five of the two sides’ last eight meetings, and dispatched Pool B rivals Scotland in convincing fashion on Saturday evening.
James Lowe got the scoreboard moving after just 62 seconds, and Ireland had six tries and 36 points on the board by the time Scotland got their first points of the match - a try for Ewan Ashman – more than an hour after Lowe’s touchdown. Ali Price raced in from the restart to give the scoreboard a respectable look, but the 36-14 result was a fair indication of the match.
South Africa did not have a match this week, so could do nothing but watch as Ireland and Scotland decided the final make-up of Pool B. The unlikely scenario of the defending champions heading home before the quarter-finals was quickly put out of its misery as Ireland headed in at the break 26-0 ahead, with a try-scoring bonus already in the bag.
Which means the defending champions will face France, who killed off Italy’s hopes of a first-ever Rugby World Cup quarter-final in emphatic style in Lyon.
Winger Damian Penaud climbed to second in France’s try-scorers’ list with a brace of tries. He now has 35 international touchdowns – including six in this Rugby World Cup, 14 this year, and 30 in his last 20 tests under Fabien Galthié, after scoring five times in his first 16 internationals.
Yoram Moefana also scored twice, his first just two minutes after he came on as a replacement for Gaël Fickou, while Louis Bielle-Biarrey, Thomas Ramos, Matthieu Jalibert and Peato Mauvaka all touched down in a 60-7 victory.
A late try for replacement Manuel Zuliani was as good as it got for Italy in what turned out to be coach Kieran Crowley’s last match in charge. When they pitch up to Stadio Olimpico on 3 February next year for the 2024 Six Nations, they’ll be under the coaching eye of Gonzalo Quesada.
Tonga ran in seven tries to end their campaign on a winning note, overwhelming Romania 45-24 in Lille. But the Eastern Europeans’ three-try performance meant they avoided setting a new unwanted record for the lowest points tally at a Rugby World Cup.