MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Fiji's players were strewn across the field, some with their heads in their hands and others in tears. One player had his face buried in a seat in the dugout.
Soon they were in a huddle and listening to their coach, Simon Raiwalui, deliver some parting words in a tournament the Flying Fijians have lit up with their joie de vivre and spirit in face of tragedy behind the scenes.
The rugby world will echo those words.
Few will forget the bullocking charges of winger Semi Radradra. The handling skills of lock Isoa Nasilasila that wouldn't be out of the place in the NBA. The courage of Josua Tuisova and Sam Matavesi, who have played on at this World Cup while stricken by grief after family bereavements.
Like in 1987 and 2007, Fiji couldn't make that one extra step and get to the semifinals, a milestone yet to be achieved by a team in the second tier of world rugby since the advent of professionalism nearly 30 years ago.
The gap, though, seems to be closing.
“They wanted to create a new identity, I think they have done that,” Raiwalui said.
"We’ve worked so hard from week one, 15 weeks now and they’ve shown where we belong on the world stage. The whole group, 33 players, 52 in total with the staff. It’s a bit of an emotional moment at the moment.”
This shouldn't be a flash-in-the-pan showing from the Fijians.
They've always produced players with outrageous skills and athleticism — their success in sevens highlights that — but like fellow Pacific Island nations Samoa and Tonga, Fiji has long had its talent drained by the top teams in the northern and southern hemisphere and been robbed of exposure to top-level competitions.
Changing that is extra funding by World Rugby and the inclusion of the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby Pacific, the top club competition in the southern hemisphere, since last year.
It has helped the World Cup squad be better prepared, more together and a real threat to rugby's established powers like Australia, which was beaten by Fiji and dumped out at the pool stage for the first time in 10 editions of the tournament.
What the Fijians really wanted was to advance to the semifinals, capping a six-week stay in France that started when they charmed the locals outside Bordeaux by singing on a stage in the center of a village and continued a few weeks later when they sang for King Charles III during his state visit.
Unfortunately, they fell short against England and were left crying foul at what they perceived to be bias by French referee Mathieu Raynal.
“Absolutely,” said Fiji captain Waisea Nayacalevu when asked whether he felt referees have unconscious bias against smaller rugby nations. He seemed particular frustrated at England lock Maro Itoje's work at the breakdown.
"I just ask that we can have a fair decision like every team has, so we can play rugby, so everyone can enjoy the game.”
Frustration will ultimately give way to pride.
OK, so Fiji leaves the World Cup with two wins from five games, a record that includes a loss to Portugal in the pool stage.
The team didn't perform as it liked against England, perhaps overawed by the occasion early on and coming alive only when desperate in the final half-hour.
It was nearly enough, though. Only a converted try separated the Fijians from a place in history.
“Even though we are hurt and we didn’t get the result for today’s game,” Fiji flanker Meli Derenalagi said, "(there was) a brotherhood that we formed and a bond we formed inside the team. That’s what family means to us, even though we are far away from our family.
“We reached the quarterfinals in 2007 and after 16 years we reached it again, but we will make sure that the next coming World Cup we will climb higher again.”
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby