State of the Nation: Fiji, Georgia and Japan’s form ahead of the Rugby World Cup

Jared Wright
Albert Tuisue of Fiji Rugby, Davit Niniashvili of Georgia rugby and Japan rugby Kazuki Himeno

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the nations. Finally, we review Fiji, Georgia and Japan.

It was a relatively uninspiring autumn for Fiji and Japan, but Georgia sprung a surprise as they claimed their first-ever win over Wales.

The 13-12 win in Cardiff meant Georgia wrapped up the year with an impressive record of seven wins from ten games, including an uncapped match against Argentina XV and a draw against Portugal.

Georgia’s historic year

Georgia lost one Test all year, with the three hiccups including that draw with Portugal in their first Test of 2022, a loss to Argentina XV in a non-Test match and a narrow loss to Samoa.

They raced to their fourth successive Rugby Europe Championship title – their 14th title overall – bouncing back from their opening day draw to defeat the Netherlands, Romania and Spain.

Levan Maisashvili’s side endured another slow start in July as they fell to a 30-24 defeat at the hands of Argentina XV but again, their response was swift.

A week later, they created another bit of history in Batumi, claiming their first triumph over a Six Nations team, defeating Italy 28-19.

They wrapped up their July internationals with a solid 23-14 victory over Portugal. In November, the Lelos comfortably dispatched Uruguay 34-18 before falling to a narrow 20-19 defeat to Samoa; a late try deciding the match.

Again, they bounced back quickly with another first. Before 2022, Georgia had never beaten a Six Nations side, but their win in Cardiff was their maiden victory over a Home Nation and their first away win over a Six Nations side.

Adding another string to their bow

Georgia are renowned for their scrummaging ability, and the set-piece did not disappoint in 2022. 

Their dominance in the scrums saw them to victory over Wales, with the pack winning a crucial penalty with the match on the line. 

Their clutch scrum work is even more impressive, considering it was won by rookies Nika Abuladze and Aleksandze Kuntelia, who earned their fifth and second Test caps, respectively. 

The continued rise of backs Tedo Abzhandadze and Davit Niniashvili show that the Georgians are far from a one-trick pony and are more than capable of ripping any defence into pieces.

Challenges

The most significant challenges that tier two sides face is getting over that first hurdle of an historic win and squad depth. Two things that head coach Maisashvili addressed in 2022.

They got over the hurdle of defeating the more favoured Italy in July and backed that up with a victory over Wales to prove that it was not a one-off shock.

Their highly rated scrum-half Gela Aprasidze and centre Giorgi Kveseladze both missed the match in the second of those two wins.

Georgia are in Pool C along with Portugal, Australia, Fiji and Wales, which will undoubtedly be challenging. Still, if 2022 is anything to go by, we could see an upset or two in France next year. 

Fiji fall short

It was an indifferent year for Fiji, who managed just one Test win this year. They were favourites to win the Pacific Nations Cup in July but stumbled, picking up just one win against Tonga. They fell to defeats to Australia A and Samoa in the tournament decider. 

The first 40 minutes of their Autumn Nations Series showed signs of improvement as they trailled Scotland 14-12; that performance was quickly undone with two yellow cards in the final 40 as they fell to a 28-12 defeat. 

Against Ireland, Fiji’s discipline cost them again with two yellow cards and a red card, seeing them to a 35-17 defeat. 

Building depth

Ben Volavola fell out of favour with Vern Cotter this year, opening the door for more starting minutes for Fijian Drua fly-half Teti Tela. Throughout the year, the 31-year-old showed flashes of brilliance that will surely pay off during the pool stages of next year’s Rugby World Cup. 

Centre Vilimoni Botitu was also given a run at fly-half against Scotland and had a solid game in the position. At the same time, the Fijians played out their final Tests of the year without powerhouse backs Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra, with Super Rugby star Vinaya Habosi impressing during his debut season.

The benefit of Super Rugby Pacific

Before next year’s Rugby World Cup, the Fijian Drua will feature in their second season of Super Rugby Pacific, which will play a vital role in their preparations for France 2023.

Fiji struggled to prepare for Test windows and major events in the past, as most of the squad plied their trade across Europe. However, with a Fijian side in Super Rugby Pacific, Cotter will have a number of his players in the same team and will hopefully have access to them during the season.

Japan are an excellent example of how effective this can be, as Jamie Joseph’s were remarkably cohesive during their home tournament and topped their pool in 2019.

A busy year for Japan

Joseph was a busy man in 2022, with the former Highlanders boss taking charge of 11 matches for Japan.

The 53-year-old headed up the Emerging Blossoms, Japan XV and Brave Blossoms this year as he took stock of his player pool and attempted to make up for lost matches in 2020.

The Brave Blossoms kicked off their year with back-to-back wins over Uruguay, winning the first match 34-15 and the second 43-7.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup hosts welcomed the 2023 hosts to Japan in July for a two-Test series. Les Bleus sent a weakened side without several Grand Slam winners but could still secure a 23-42 win in the opening match. Japan were far more competitive in the second Test, with a try separating the two sides.

In October, Japan XV played out three close matches against Australia but ultimately lost the series 2-1.

Arguably their best performance of the year came against New Zealand, where they looked on track to claim yet another upset against but fell just short as the All Blacks prevailed 38-31.

They ended their year with a disappointing outing at Twickenham, where they were soundly beaten 52-13.

Rising stars

If 2022 was the year of testing depth and unearthing stars, Joseph certainly achieved that.

Dylan Riley took his opportunities in the starting line-up and could be a crucial attacking weapon for the side next year. His ability to slot into both centre positions and on the wing gives Joseph options for setting up his backline.

Up front, hooker Atsushi Sakate has thrived with the captaincy armband, and with Shota Horie still in with a chance to return to Test rugby next year, Japan is bound to get a solid 80 minutes out of the hooker position.

Warner Dearns and Jack Cornelosen were excellent in the second-row throughout the year, providing the grunt needed to take on the heavier tier-one packs.

Elsewhere, Teita Tatafu’s barnstorming runs and abrasive defence added firepower to an already competitive back-row with Lappies Labuschange, Michael Leitch, and Kazuki Himeno.

Takuya Yamasawa’s accurate boot and playmaking ability makes him another to keep an eye on ahead of the World Cup.

Verdict

If Japan are to reach the knockout phases of next year’s Rugby World Cup, they will need to claim at least one more tier-one scalp, with Argentina and England standing in their way.

The Brave Blossoms showed glimpses of their 2019 giant slayers this year, and with Joseph and assistant coach Tony Brown in charge of the side, we should expect Japan to have a few tricks up their sleeves that will emerge at the tournament.

Overall, it was a testing year for Japan and one that we may look back at more fondly next year if they claim a few big scalps.

READ MORE: Unbeaten France well-placed to push for home Rugby World Cup glory