Fiji, population 900,000, defeated Australia, population 25 million, at the Rugby World Cup in St. Etienne, France, on Sunday.
On one hand, it was an upset. Fiji had not defeated Australia, a two-time winner of the event, since 1954. But it was not a huge surprise to those who have been following trends in the sport. Fiji and other tiny Pacific islands consistently punch above their weight in rugby, unlike just about any other international sports competition.
Fiji beat England, inventors of the sport, in a warm-up match last month. In its opening World Cup game it came agonizingly close to beating another traditional power, Wales. Now 1-1 in the Cup, the team’s last two group games are against much weaker opposition, Georgia and Portugal, giving it every chance to make the quarterfinals.
Also in the 20-team field are Samoa (population 200,000), which opened up with a comfortable win over Chile, and Tonga (population 100,000), which fell to mighty Ireland. The Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Niue, Tahiti and the Solomon Islands also field men’s teams in international competition.
Fiji’s rugby success started in a stripped-down form of the game called rugby sevens. The smaller teams in that form of rugby game — seven players per side rather than 15 — can help negate the advantage larger nations have in squad depth.
Sevens was introduced to the Olympic Games in 2016, and Fiji’s men won the gold medal. To celebrate, the country printed seven-dollar bills with the team on them. Fiji repeated as gold medalists in the Tokyo Games in 2021. Now its success is moving on to the full-format game.
The Pacific Island nations are hardly across-the-board sports powers. Fiji’s rugby golds are the only medals of any color the country has ever won at a Games. Tonga has a single silver medal in boxing, and Samoa just one silver in weight lifting. In contrast, Australia, which fell to Fiji, 22-15, on Sunday at the World Cup, has 566 Olympic medals over the years.
Even getting into the World Cup, as the three islands did, is not a sure thing. Among the major nations that missed out were Spain, Canada and the United States.
Rugby traces to the 1880s in the islands, brought over by visitors from New Zealand, who in turn had learned the game from the British (it was invented at the Rugby boarding school in Warwickshire). International matches between the islands began in the 1920s, and soon rugby was the de facto national sport throughout the region. Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, never caught on in the same way: Fiji’s men are ranked 169th in the world.
It is not an exaggeration to say that rugby permeates everything in many Pacific Island nations. “It’s something that has always gripped the nation,” said Bruce Southwick, a Fijian cinematographer of “Sevens From Heaven,” a documentary about the Fiji team. “In Fiji, everybody from grandmas down to little babies are obsessed by the game.”
A game time that was in the middle of the night didn’t stop most of Fiji from watching, and then celebrating the victory over Australia.
“It was crazy; my cousins were beating tin drums and big pots to celebrate Fiji’s win, drivers were tooting their horns, and many didn’t go to school or work,” one fan, Nacanieli Tuilevuka, told The Guardian in Suva, Fiji.
The talent coming from the islands is sometimes a tempting lure for other countries, notably New Zealand. Players from many of the island countries often go to New Zealand for economic opportunity at a young age, and if they show rugby talent, they are gobbled up by the mighty New Zealand team, the perennial World Cup favorite known as the All Blacks. The money and prestige have traditionally been greater to play for such a powerhouse.
But the option to stay in Tonga, Samoa and especially Fiji and still have a real chance to defeat the rugby super powers is increasingly a viable one. The final score on Sunday is a prime sign of that.