The Red Dragons are still in control of their own future at this World Cup – a four-try victory over Australia in their final match in the “pool of not feeling particularly well” will take them to 18 points, which is two more than England can possibly manage. That is a long shot, though. What is indisputable is Fiji’s status as the best side ever to play three games in a global tournament and have naff-all to show for it.
Well over 70,000 spectators in Cardiff witnessed a minor classic that frequently threatened to turn itself into a major one. Some of the Fijian assaults on the Welsh barricades were breathtaking in their vision and athleticism; some of the home defensive work was above and beyond the call of duty. To think that the islanders have driven England and the Wallabies towards the edge of a very steep cliff, pushed these latest opponents to the limit of their endurance and still be slumming it alongside Uruguay on no points…well, it makes the heart weep.
Wales had a delicate tactical decision before them: should they play the game through their forwards, rely on the outside-half Dan Biggar to play the territory card and build a score through close-range tries and penalties in the hope that Fiji would buckle under the pressure and split asunder in the final quarter? Or go for the attacking bonus point from the get-go and risk turning the contest into the kind of tear-up these particular Pacific Islanders might relish? The answer to the conundrum came immediately.
Biggar could be seen spurning a shot at the sticks in favour of a punt to touch as early as the third minute, and sure enough, it paid dividends. The Welsh forwards were even hungrier than the Nando’s-loving Tongans, if not for quite the same kind of sustenance: it is not every day you see a loose-head prop, even one as mobile as the triple Lions tourist Gethin Jenkins, hunting down a South Seas midfielder as fast as Vereniki Goneva and forcing him to touch down in a panic behind his own sticks.
From the ensuing scrum, the team somehow permitted to benefit from home advantage despite not being the tournament’s host nation opened their account, Gareth Davies dummying away from Akapusi Qera and finishing at the posts, thereby presenting his half-back partner Biggar with the easiest of conversions. Here was the double act who did for England last weekend, wedded together in holy point-scoring productivity once again. They may have been thrown together as a result of injury, but they look a mighty useful combination.
Yet the very nature of those opening exchanges persuaded the Fijians that here was a match to suit them. Some of their broken-field running, with the likes of the full-back Metuisela Talebula and the outside-half Ben Volavola heavily implicated, was thrillingly adventurous and only the most myopic Millennium Stadium debenture holder would have disputed the view that the islanders were worth far more than a single Volavola penalty in the opening half-hour.
Indeed, there were some very good reasons for Welsh concern. Their front row were badly outscrummaged during the first half and but for some scramble defence on an epic scale from the relentless Dan Lydiate on the blind-side flank, there would surely have been at least one try for someone in a palm tree-emblazoned white shirt.
Instead, it was Wales who found a way across the whitewash: the hooker Scott Baldwin, sniffing at the heels of the centre Tyler Morgan like a faithful hound, stretched out for the points after a beautifully delayed pass from Biggar set two other tight forwards, Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones, stampeding into the Fijian red zone.
But there were few comforts to be had as a result of this slightly fortunate turn of events against the run of play: Volavola bagged a second penalty before the break and when Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Timoci Nagusa cut loose in open field early in the second period, the threatening Goneva was on hand to apply the finishing touch. It was a magical score and thus encouraged, the islanders turned the attacking blowtorch up another notch, to something like full blast.
Nagusa, Levani Botia, Nemia Kenatale, the jaw-dropping lock Leone Nakarawa…all of these and more slipped effortlessly into rampage mode. All Wales had to offer in response over the course of a deeply unnerving third quarter was some iron-willed defensive work and a second penalty from Biggar that was almost as good as his match-winning effort from the back of beyond at Twickenham last Saturday night. It was a wickedly difficult shot, from a position wide on the right and on the very limit of his range. The outside-half did not look like missing, even for a nanosecond.
And before he limped off – a concern for Wales, for sure – he nailed a third, far easier shot to give his country the breathing space they craved. There might have been more of it available had Davies been successful in doubling his try tally late on, but the video replays decreed that his combined slide and shove towards the left corner in Netani Talei’s tackle was incomplete.
Wales: M Morgan (J Hook 70); A Cuthbert (L Williams 20-26), T Morgan, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar (R Priestland 72), G Davies; G Jenkins (A Jarvis 66), S Baldwin (K Owens 54), T Francis (S Lee 49), B Davies (L Charteris 13-26 and 63), A W Jones, D Lydiate (J Tipuric 68), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Fiji: M Talebula; T Nagusa, V Goneva (J Matavesi 70), L Botia (K Murimurivalu 74), A Tikoirotuma; B Volavola, N Kenatale H Seniloli 70); C Ma’afu (P Ravai 77), S Koto (V Veikoso 74), M Saulo (L Atalifo 77), T Cavubati (N Soqeta 68), L Nakarawa, D Waqaniburotu (M Ravulo 68), A Qera (capt), N Talei.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).Reuse content