Fiji qualified for next year’s World Cup by crushing the Cook Islands 108-6 in Saturday’s last qualifying match for the Oceania region.
The Fijians will make a seventh World Cup appearance in eight tournaments, and will play host England in the opening match, after sweeping aside their opponents and running in 17 tries.
The Cook’s – ranked 46 in the world and with only 500 registered players – sustained their ambitious hopes of qualifying for the first time when they led 6-5 after 27 minutes against a Fiji team beset by handling errors.
But when Fiji’s giant ball-runners began to hold passes and to combine in thrilling attacks, the outsiders were thoroughly overwhelmed.
Fiji will now play in Pool A at the World Cup, alongside England, Wales, Australia and a qualifier and will meet England in the tournament’s opening match at Twickenham.
A landslide victory seemed on the cards when Fiji scored after only 1 minute, 11 seconds, through fullback Matuisela Talebula who went on to become one of his team’s five multiple tryscorers. Center Nemani Nadolo scored three tries and Talebula, Adriu Delai, Nikola Matawalu and Timoci Nagusa all bagged doubles – Delai, Matawalu and Nagusa as replacements.
But Cook Islands flyhalf Sam Vaevae slotted two penalties to grab a 6-5 lead and momentarily shake Fiji’s confidence.
When passes began to stick Fiji’s superiority became immediately obvious and overwhelming and they added four tries in 13 minutes to lead 29-6 at halftime.
“We knew the Cook Islands would come at us in the forwards in the first 20 minutes,” Fiji captain Akapusi Qera said. “We expected that and we managed to compensate and come out with the win.
“It’s a big game for us as a team and as a nation. It’s a big thing for a rugby player growing up to qualify for the rugby World Cup and that’s what motivated us in the second half.”
The second half belonged wholly to Fiji who added 13 more tries. When they clocked 90 points, they had inflicted the Cook Islands’ heaviest-ever international defeat and they went on with two late tries to ease past 100 points.
Cook Islands captain, Stade Francais prop Stan Wright said his team tried hard but were simply overwhelmed by a team which was bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced.
“As you can see by the scoreline it was a hard game and we were simply outclassed by a better side,” Wright said.
“The gap between the elite and us showed out there today and we’ve got quite a bit of ground to cover to get up to their level.
“We’re not a big nation and we need more guys putting their hands up to play for the Cook Islands because we lack depth and we need more players.”