Wallabies maul their way out of Sapporo stunner

And breathe.

Four years on from the corresponding matchday that delivered The Miracle of Brighton, the 2019 Rugby World Cup very nearly provided The Stunner in Sapporo after the Flying Fijians gave the Wallabies an almighty scare on Saturday afternoon.

The Pacific Islanders turned on one of the most physically brutal half-hours of rugby you're ever likely to see as they whacked Christian Lealiifano in defence and bumped off winger Reece Hodge with ball in hand. The likes of Peceli Yato, Josua Tuisova and former NRL Parramatta Eels superstar Semi Radradra were dishing out the punishment to a clearly rattled Wallabies outfit that seemed intent on playing into their opponents' hands.

But in a testament to the Wallabies' preparation and the depth on their bench, they were able to get themselves out of trouble largely through their powerful rolling maul and the fortune of seeing Fiji have a player sent to the sin-bin.

The situation had looked desperate for 30 minutes, though.

An early penalty set the tone for Fiji before a barnstorming run from Tuisova down the right touchline had the Wallabies scrambling, the winger's final pass finding Clermont star Yato who galloped away for the game's opening try.

Australia needed someone to stand up and they had no better place to look than their captain Michael Hooper. Having finally earned some field position and built pressure through repeated phase ball, the Wallabies forwards tore into the Fiji defensive line, which provided their captain the chance to use his footwork and sheer determination to stretch down and give the Wallabies a badly needed foothold in the contest.

But Michael Cheika's side soon found themselves backtracking once more as Yato went within a few metres from scoring after working a smart short lineout move; it would however be the back-rower's final action of the game, as a heavy tackle from Hodge would see the Fiji back-rower ruled out through rugby's Head Injury Assessment policy.

Still, two more penalties from Volavola gave the Fijians a thoroughly deserved 14-7 lead just after the half-hour.

The Australian scrum had been a rare positive up until that point and it again helped them get the field position to launch only their second genuine attack inside the Fiji 22. They showed the necessary patience to suck in defenders before moving the ball through the backlines; James O'Connor's sharp hands allowing Hodge - who had been in the thick of the action throughout the first half - the space to slide over in the corner.

Upon the return from halftime, it was almost as if the Australians had learned nothing from their first-half misadventure. With good ball on offer from the lineout, the Wallabies opted for a set-play that went badly awry and James' O'Connor's spilled pass was quickly scooped up by Fijian centre Waisea Nayacalevu who easily palmed off Lealiifano and sprinted 60 metres to score.

One of the great upsets in Rugby World Cup history was, at that point, well and truly on.

Australia needed a settling play and they got it when Hodge knocked over a penalty goal on 51 minutes. There were plenty of Australian fans in the Sapporo Dome - they had the second most applications for World Cup tickets - and they knew how serious the fight their team was in as cries of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi oi oi" and Waltzing Matilda could be heard circling the indoor arena.

Fiji coach John McKee had told ESPN only last week that his side would need to be wary of the Wallabies' driving maul from close range, and it would be exactly that which befuddled his men. Two times the Australians looked to power over from close range only to be denied by illegal Fijian tactics, but having been warned by referee Ben O'Keeffe they could not stop a third drive finished by hooker Tolu Latu.

It proved the commonsense play the Wallabies had needed for 55 minutes as suddenly their passes began to stick. A Marika Koroibete break following a sublime Samu Kerevi cut-out pass would give Australia the field position they needed to launch another attacking raid and when Levani Botia was yellow-carded, Latu again finished off a lineout drive to give the Wallabies the lead for the first time in the match.

With that, the momentum had swung.

A Fijian knock-on gave the Wallabies the chance to again assert their scrum dominance and they did just that to earn a third set-piece penalty from referee O'Keeffe for the match. A short while later, Kerevi powered over after another driving maul and several strong carries from the forwards.

The upset had just about been quashed, if not with Kerevi's try then certainly when Koroibete flew down the sideline with seven minutes to play. After countless passes had hit the deck first up, the Australians had at last found their range and were reaping the benefits.

Australia's 18-point victory won't have changed any thoughts about their ability to go deep into the tournament but it will be a warning to Wales whom battle Fiji after next Sunday's clash with the Wallabies.

Wales face Georgia on Monday before they battle the Wallabies, giving the Australians an extra two days to hone what were some pretty lousy first-half skills and a number of lacklustre decisions.

And, after three goal-kickers all had their struggles, find someone who can consistently split the posts.

So The Stunner in Sapporo didn't eventuate. The Pacific Islanders have however come to Japan to play knockout rugby and had it not been for Yato's head knock and an inability to defend the rolling maul, they may have already been well on their way to doing so.