The Junior Wallabies have set up an Oceania championship clash against New Zealand after scratching their way to a 16-0 win over Fiji in their second match of the tournament at Bond University.
After making several changes to their starting team, Australia struggled to find continuity in the opening half and while things improved in the second term, Fiji pushed the home side until the final buzzer, with the Junior Wallabies managing just one try in the win.
Lock Michael Wood crossed in the first half as Fiji squandered chances, missing three penalties that could have handed them a halftime lead.
The Junior Wallabies shut out their opponents in the second term though, keeping a clean sheet despite missing Joe Cotton for 10 minutes after he was handed a yellow card for a high tackle.
But dogged defence – especially from backrowers Pat Tafa, Carlo Tizzano and Tom Kibble helped shut down the consistent Fiji raids, while the visitors were also guilty of handling errors at crucial moments.
The victory sets up a championship-defining clash against the Kiwis at Bond University on Saturday, after New Zealand beat Japan in the early round two match.
Captain Michael McDonald, who finished with a personal haul of 11 points from a conversion and three penalties, said the Junior Wallabies were happy with the result given the conditions and the threat of a physical Fijian side.
“Obviously we had to play to the conditions and we were up against a tough Fijian side, we got away with the win and that was all we had to do.
“Full credit to the boys, we just had to toughen up in defence, especially in that first half when we were under pressure and we did really well,” McDonald said.
Squally showers made for a slippery ball and difficult conditions against a physical Fiji side and the Junior Wallabies were guilty of plenty of frustrating errors that kept the visitors in the game.
“Errors are going to happen, that’s just rugby,” McDonald said.
“You’ve just got to move on and full credit to the boys for keeping them scoreless off a couple of those easy slips.
“To the weather conditions, you just got with it but at least we stayed in the game and kept them scoreless.
“We’re looking really forward to playing New Zealand, it’s the one we’ve been building up to.
“Obviously they’re a quality side but everyone’s really excited for Saturday and can’t wait to rip in.
“As a team we’ve only been together for a couple of camps now and we’re really looking to build into this World Cup … that’s our main focus.”
Three missed penalties from Fiji cruelled their chances to take the lead and Australia made the most of the opportunity with a try to lock Michael Wood in the 24th minute.
With several changes having been made to their starting XV, the Junior Wallabies struggled to find cohesion in the opening 20 minutes and found themselves under plenty of pressure.
The young Australians were guilty of simple handling errors and lazy penalties and handed the Fijians two shots at goal early in the match.
But Simioni Kuruvoli missed both attempts and it was Australia that opened the scoring as Wood barged over.
Coach Jason Gilmore had expected plenty from the Fijians after their first-half performance against New Zealand last Friday and the Junior Wallabies were unsurprised at the visitors’ intensity.
But if the Australians expected the floodgates to open, they were mistaken.
The fight of the Fijians and the continued errors from the Junior Wallabies kept the visitors in the match and they had another chance to open their account before flyhalf Caleb Muntz missed a shot at goal late in the half.
Things improved almost immediately in the second term, with halfback Michael McDonald converting a penalty to increase the lead to 10-0.
And while hooker Joe Cotton received a yellow card for a high tackle soon after, the Junior Wallabies maintained their clean sheet while he was off, showing a more patient attitude.
Gilmore made several changes at the break, bringing Will Harrison on at flyhalf and shuffling Ben Donaldson to fullback while giving Reds utility Isaac Lucas his first break of the tournament.
Centre Noah Lolesio and winger Mark Nawaqanitawase also took the field in a reshuffled backline that immediately made the home side look more dangerous.