MARSEILLE, France — Fiji briefly threatened the greatest upset in World Cup history, pushing South Africa to the limit in their quarterfinal at the Stade Velodrome before eventually going down 37-20.
The Springboks ultimately joined fellow semifinalists England and France, but not before Fiji — conquerors of Wales eight days earlier — gave them a monumental fright.
Fiji wiped out a 14-point deficit to draw level at 20-20 midway through the second period after tries in rapid succession from wings Vilimoni Delasau and Sireli Bobo.
Lock Ifereimi Rawaqa came within inches of adding a third second-half touchdown, yet South Africa survived to book a last-four appointment with Argentina.
In the end, South Africa’s forward strength and technical discipline guided them through. The Springboks claimed tries by center Jaque Fourie, captain John Smit, wing JP Pietersen, flanker Juan Smith and fly-half Butch James with Francois Steyn and Percy Montgomery each kicking penalties and the latter adding three conversions.
Fiji nonetheless deserve all the plaudits after contributing hugely to a quarterfinal weekend when the 2007 World Cup finally came alive.
South Africa made their intentions clear from the start, looking to employ their trademark power game and pin Fiji on the back foot.
Initially, it worked — as Steyn booted a 50-meter penalty before Fourie crossed wide out following a spell of sustained pressure.
While an 8-0 deficit inside 15 minutes might have sounded alarm bells for Fiji, they kept their composure well and Bai’s penalty brought them back into the contest.
South Africa were also guilty of greed in attack, flanker Schalk Burger blowing a great chance when he ignored the unmarked Danie Rossouw outside him by trying to go it alone.
The game had a scrappy nature to it as South Africa’s forwards kept plugging away and although Smit was driven over from a 35th minute line-out, Montgomery’s third successive miss meant Fiji were still in contention, trailing 13-3 at half-time.
Fiji came out firing for the second period and they gained an immediate reward when Bai kicked his second penalty after Springboks wing Bryan Habana was punished for not releasing possession in front of his posts.
Driven on by a towering performance from their captain and scrum-half Mosese Rauluni, Fiji took charge of the third quarter — giving South Africa significant food for thought.
South Africa weathered the storm and created a try from nothing when Pietersen crossed. Montgomery converted, and Fiji lost center Seru Rabeni — who was sin-binned for a high tackle on James during the build-up.
Fiji hit back with Delasau’s opportunist effort, narrowing South Africa’s lead to seven points and then incredibly they struck again just a minute later.
Rauluni ran from deep, storming into the heart of South African territory before the supporting Bobo finished things off. Bai’s conversion made it 20-20.
It was a stunning fightback and although a Montgomery penalty edged South Africa ahead, Fiji maintained intense pressure.
However, Smith’s 69th-minute clincher meant South Africa avoided the fate of Tri-Nations rivals New Zealand and Australia in making an early World Cup exit.