Wales and Fiji are familiar foes at the Rugby World Cup, the two nations having been paired together for the last three pool stages.
At the last World Cup, Fiji were on the receiving end of a 66-0 annihilation, which was partial reparation for the head-turner that was their previous tournament encounter at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes four years earlier, when the Pacific Islanders pulled off a stunning upset to win 38-34.
All the more remarkable was the backdrop to that game, with Fiji in turmoil both as a nation and a team. Literally hours before the tournament was due to kick off, a naval officer by the name of Frank Bainimarama, who had led a coup d’état nine months earlier, imposed a state of emergency on his people.
The nation’s rugby team was also in disarray, their coach having resigned and Ilivasi Tabua coming into the role with six weeks to prepare his squad. Unconvincing wins against Japan and Canada and a heavy defeat to Australia meant that Fiji were written off long before their final pool game against the Welsh.
Eight years on, Tabua likens the ensuing 80 minutes to the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the manner in which it unified South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” just a year into Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
“The island had been torn apart for 10 years with military coups and a lot of people had lost their lives,” says Tabua. “We had our issues but everyone likes rugby, it brings us all together and allowed Fiji to move forward and we forgot. We forgot about our troubles and our faith.
“It unified the people. It crossed all borders, religious, cultural and political beliefs. We were together as one.
“We’d been written off but then suddenly it was like a new year celebration, everyone was out, cars were tooting their horns, it was crazy, just madness. It was like Fiji had won the World Cup.”
Graham Dewes is an unassuming carpenter from New Zealand’s North Island. They call him the “dragon-slayer”, a prop who had been drafted into the squad and specifically advised not to run with the ball against Wales.
That he should be the unlikeliest of scorers of the match-winning try merely adds to the legendary status of a game that is still talked about wherever he goes.
With 76 minutes on the clock and Wales leading 34-31 having come back from a 25-3 deficit, the Welsh defenders found themselves rooted on their line as Dewes picked up possession from the back of a ruck and planted the ball amid a melee of players.
The clock ticked on agonisingly slowly for Fiji’s players as the television match official ruled on the legality of the move before awarding the try.
“I was just in the right spot at the right time,” Dewes says modestly of his role in the finale. “I think they were looking for someone else but I was there and saw the option. I was told very clearly my role with the team was not to be a ball-carrier but to make tackles and be there for the scrum and line-out but, for that one, I just went for it.
“Scoring that try, I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment again like that in my life. Just to play at a Rugby World Cup was very special for me but I scored that and I get reminded of it all the time. Nicky Little [the fly-half on the day] calls me the ‘dragon-slayer’.”
Tabua is adamant to this day that he never once doubted that anything but a Fiji victory would be the outcome on that day. Such an outlook became easier to understand as they decimated their more experienced counterparts from the opening whistle to lead 25-3.
But as the fitness of Fiji’s players wavered, their chance appeared to have gone begging when an intercepted pass allowed Martyn Williams to run in under the posts and move Wales into the lead for the first time in the match.
Scrum-half Mosese Rauluni, who was playing for Saracens at the time and is Fiji’s breakdown coach at this tournament, recalls: “Even when Martyn Williams scored the intercept, I saw it in the boys’ eyes that everyone was calm. We still had the belief that we could do it.
“This was our chance for that one big scalp and to prove all the doubters wrong. But there were so many phases at the end. I remember at the end I was just legless on the pitch and quite emotional.”
Tabua had taken the decision to make 11 changes for the previous pool match against the Wallabies in order to rest players and ensure that his key personnel were fit to take on Wales.
“Our goal was always to reach the quarter-finals and to do that we either had to beat Wales or Australia so I chose Wales,” he said. “People doubted us but we had belief.
“I remember saying to the players, ‘they have two feet, two hands, they feel pain just like you’. We were tired but we kept fighting. We were never going to give in, never fall short, we fight to the end.”
In the aftermath, the squad were joined in their hotel by the high commissioner from Brussels and Fijian members of the British Army. As the players rang home in between bottles of kava they could hear the celebrations in Fiji in the background.
It remains an iconic moment in the Fijian sporting lexicon. “If you meet someone from back home they will always be able to tell you where they were watching the game,” says Dewes.
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