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By Finau Fonua, RNZ Pacific journalist

The Fijiana are one step away from reaching the quarterfinals of the Women’s Rugby World Cup — but they have to beat favourite France first.

To qualify, they need to overcome the in-form French team at the Northland Events Centre in Whangārei on Saturday.

It is an opportunity that has arisen as a result of a thrilling 21-17 last-gasp upset over favourites South Africa last weekend, with Fijiana stealing the game with a try scored in the final minute.

Most commentators did not expect Fijiana to win, having entered the game off the back of an 84-19 thrashing at the hands of England in their opening game.

“I have no words for it. I am just so grateful for the girls. We talked about leaving everything on the field and playing with our hearts,” Fijiana captain Asinate Serevi said.

Vika Matarugu of Fiji scores a try during the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Fiji and South Africa at Waitakere Stadium on October 16, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand
Vika Matarugu of Fiji scores a try during the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Fiji and South Africa at Waitakere Stadium last Sunday. Image: Fiona Goodall/World Rugby/RNZ Pacific

“One thing that Fijians are known for is that even with three or one minute left on the clock, we can still win a game — and that’s what we did,” Asinate added.

“As a captain they made me look good, so I’m forever grateful for the game they put on.”

First Pacific qualifier
Being the first Pacific Island nation to qualify for the Women’s Rugby World Cup is an accomplishment, but for Fijiana, qualifying for the quarterfinals is the driving goal.

Despite a disheartening loss to England, Senirusi Serivakula said Fijiana’s winning ambitions have never faltered.

“The message was clear from the beginning, which was that we must beat South Africa. That was the message, that we are not going to walk away without a win over South Africa,” coach Senirusi Seruvakula said.

“I’m proud that the girls stuck to it, and they played as a team to the last minute.”

That message was delivered in a stunning fashion, with a last-minute try scored right between the posts by forward Karalaini Naisewa. The number eight had to crash through three tacklers to get the ball over the line.

That try has since gone viral and Fijiana players have now become overnight celebrities in Fiji.

The star of the team, prop forward Siteri Rasolea, was awarded player of the match. She relentlessly ploughed through South Africa’s forwards from beginning to end.

Public admiration
Rasolea had already won public admiration in Fiji after she turned down an offer to play for her home nation Australia, opting to represent her heritage nation Fiji.

Rasolea said the team were still coming to terms with their accomplishment.

“Our girls had to dig deep and really fight for each other,” said Rasolea.

“I’m still in awe of it now. I want to dedicate this to everyone who supported me at home. It wasn’t easy leaving Australia to go to Fiji, so I fulfil my dreams.”

Like Rasolea, many of Fijiana’s players flocked from overseas with the purpose of representing their heritage.

Fijiana captain Asinate Serevi, who is the daughter of 7s legend Waisele Serevi, represented the United States for three years before switching to Fiji.

“It means the whole world to me. I can’t thank God enough for all the support. My plan was just to play for Fiji and represent my country. And being named captain is honestly beyond dreams,” Serevi said.

‘Huge step to win’
“It’s a huge step for us to win one game in the World Cup means to us like we’ve won the world cup already. We know France is going to be tougher and we have things to work on.”

Regardless of Fijiana’s big win, France remains the overwhelming favourite, having easily defeated South Africa 40-5 and narrowly losing to England 13-7.

However, they have been weakened by the loss of their staff halfback Laure Sansus, who is out if the World Cup due to a knee injury in the first quarter of the game against England.

Sansus, the 2022 Women’s Six Nations Player of the Championship tore her anterior cruciate ligament and will be replaced by centre Marie Dupouy. However, she will stay on in New Zealand as France’s “chief fan”.

Coach Seruvakula is optimistic that Fijiana can win if they play a perfect game.

“I believe in the girls, that they’ll play to the last minute,” said Seruvakula.

“If we want to play in the quarterfinals, we have to do right during training and through the process everything will take care of itself come game day against France.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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