Fiji were left lamenting ill discipline and untimely injuries as they were denied an upset win over the Wallabies in their Rugby World Cup opener.
The Flying Fijians led 14-12 at half-time in Sapporo yesterday and were threatening to cause a major boilover when Waisea Nayacalevu raced away to extend their lead to nine points.
However, hopes of a first win against the Wallabies in 65 years were quickly snuffed out as the two-time champions closed the game with 27 unanswered points to prevail 39-21.
Fiji finished the match with only 33 percent possession and 28 percent territory, having fallen off 40 tackles in 80 minutes. Coach John McKee said they started strongly but struggled to get their hands on the ball after half-time.
"Australia were able to dominate possession more, which made it difficult for us," he said.
"And a few penalties which allowed them to really nail down and pressure us from line-out drives in the corner so that was probably a critical turnaround for them. Also some injuries didn't help us either."
Despite fading in the final stages, McKee saw plenty of reasons to be encouraged by Fiji's performance.
"We really had Australia on the rails certainly for 40 minutes and for a portion of the second half. Some things went against us - some things from our own fault around penalties giving away then we have a yellow card against us and that type of thing," he reflected.
"We've got to close games out - you don't win test matches by being able to play really well for 60 minutes and not finishing it out."
Flanker Peceli Yato scored the opening try of the game in the eighth minute, finishing off a spectacular 70m move down the right-hand touchline after Josua Tuisova had bumped off Wallabies winger Reece Hodge.
Yato also made his presence felt in defence but was forced from the field in the 26th minute after a heavy collision with Hodge. The tackle was queried by captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu but the referee and TMO took no further action.
The 26 year old failed a head injury assessment and will miss Fiji's next game against Uruguay on Wednesday, because he must undergo a mandatory six-day stand-down, while McKee said number eight Viliame Mata is also in doubt after leaving the field at the start of the second half.
"Losing two back-rowers is pretty critical when you have to swap a lock into the back-row," he said. It had probably a big effect on our game in the second half but we're in a four match series for the top two teams to qualify for the playoffs so I think we're still right in this tournament.
"We're focusing on the next game and we will be watching with interest to see how Australia and Wales go."
Wallabies coach Michael Cheika said he expected a strong contest from the Fijians although he felt the referee allowed them too much lee-way at the breakdown.
"The opposition came at us. They came at us on the ground as well. I thought they were able to get away with a lot there," he argued. "And it didn't give us any type of continuity so you've got to always respect the opponent, what they're bringing at all times and then you've got to try and impose yourself on them but early on they imposed themselves on us and we had to react and get back into the game."
The Fijian scrum wilted under the green and gold heat at the Sapporo Dome, while their maul defence was also repeatedly exposed, but John McKee, who had talked up his side's set piece prowess pre-match, was confident both areas could be rectified with a few technical tweaks in training.
Assistant coach Tabai Matson said the tide turned when they conceded two tries while down to 14 men but, in hindsight, they should have had more points in the bank by then.
"You play any of the top five teams in the world and you're looking to score 25 or 30 points (to give yourselves a chance at victory)," he said.
"So I think for us very proud of the effort, a massive emotional and physical effort went in and we know there's four games in our pool so we've got to bounce and get into Uruguay on Wednesday."
Waisea Nayacalevu scored Fiji's second try three minutes after half-time, scooping up a stray pass from Samu Kerevi and running 55m to score under the sticks, which gave Fiji their largest lead of the game.
The resulting conversion proved to be their final points of the afternoon but the utility was adamant the loss has not dented the team's belief that they will progress to the knockout rounds.
"Absolutely we have a feeling we are going to go through because out of this game we believe we can do better and we can achieve better. We've got three game left and we will work on that."
Wallabies hooker Tolu Latu, who scored two identical tries from line-out drives either side of a yellow card to Levani Botia, believes Fiji will be a threat to anyone in the World Cup.
"If you ask me Fiji's a tier one team to me so coming into this game we didn't under-estimate them," said the Tongan-born number two.
"We knew they were going to be tough and they were going to push us right to the end so it wasn't a surprise to us how they performed today and they are definitely going to go forward in this tournament a long way if they keep playing like that."
The Flying Fijians only have three days to recover before their next match against Uruguay in Kamaishi and Tabai Matson said they will rotate their squad to ensure all 31 players get some time on the field in the first two games.