Georgia looks to seal 3rd place in Pool D

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              Fiji's players perform the Cibi ahead of their Rugby World Cup Pool D match against Uruguay in Kamaishi, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (Naoya Osato/Kyodo News via AP)
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Georgia’s hopes of finishing third in Pool D and qualifying for the next Rugby World Cup have been significantly boosted, but still standing in the way is a Fiji team determined to bounce back from an unexpected loss.

Fiji started brightly in its opening game against Australia and led the Wallabies at halftime before losing. Then, Fiji was on the receiving end of one of the World Cup’s big upsets when it lost 30-27 to Uruguay, which went on to be soundly beaten 33-7 by Georgia.

It means that victory for Georgia against Fiji in Osaka on Thursday will all-but guarantee third place — likely behind Wales or two-time champion Australia — and a slot at the 2023 World Cup. It would be a perfect way for head coach Milton Haig to bid farewell after eight years in charge.

“You’d be fair in saying that if Georgia wins this game, we’ll qualify for the next World Cup,” Haig said. “Logistically, nobody else could catch us unless there are some huge, huge upsets. So we are confident that if we get this job done, we’ll have qualified. This is what we’ve worked hard for over the past three years. It’s come down to this and we always knew it would.”

He’s fully braced for a Fiji backlash, however, and expects to see the team which fared so well early on against Australia rather than the side which lost to Uruguay.

“The whole world knows about the Fijian team,” Haig said. “They’ll look to run the ball, I’m absolutely certain of that.”

Fiji’s had an eight-day turnaround since losing to Uruguay, in what is a must-win game before it faces group leader Wales — the Six Nations Grand Slam champion.

Georgia’s national-record tally of five tries against Uruguay carried on the momentum generated from the second half of its 43-14 loss to Wales. The Georgians trailed that one 29-0, but matched the Welsh 2-2 in converted tries after the break and often dominated in the scrum.

Fiji’s pack has its work cut out, considering five of Georgia’s seven tries so far have been scored by forwards. So Fiji has to handle Georgia’s imposing pack before getting its own flying backs into the game.

“They are a very strong set-piece team and it’s about getting our set piece right to provide some good ball for our deadly backline,” Fiji prop Campese Ma’afu said. “Anyone who knows the Flying Fijians well, we get our name from flying around the pitch a lot. But this week the main focus is to execute our plays and really apply some pressure at the set piece.”

Fiji head coach John McKee has made 11 changes from the Uruguay game, choosing a considerably stronger lineup containing 13 of the 15 players who started against Australia.

Peceli Yato, who missed the Uruguay match after showing signs of concussion following a high and heavy tackle in the Australia game, returns at No. 8 in a significant boost for McKee’s side.

“Peceli has been a massive loss for us. He was in outstanding form against the Wallabies, and at the time he got injured was probably one of the best players on the park,” McKee said. “It has been good to have had an eight-day turnaround to give us time to regroup and have a full week’s training going into this game.”