This was one of the greatest games in World Cup history, unless you happen to live in Wales, where it will be regarded as a disaster. As a full-blooded, roller-coaster spectacle it was up there with the Australia vs France semi-final of the 1987 tournament but that will be of fleeting consolation to the Welsh, who are on their way home in the disgrace that attends a leading nation who have failed to reach the quarter-final stage.
All praise to the Fijians for their thrilling exhibition of ferocious brilliance with the ball in hand. When they had possession Wales would have had more chance of lassoing a tornado than stopping them but you have to credit Wales for two terrific comebacks after they suffered a stunning 25-3 deficit in the first half.
They battled back with some brilliance of their own, especially when Shane Williams scored a wonderful try early in the second half. And when Fiji found another whirlwind to beat their way back into the lead, two strokes of Welsh magic in reply looked to have won the game. One was a try-saving tackle by Gareth Thomas which was rapidly followed by a great interception try from Martin Williams. But Fiji came back for a win that will resound around the Pacific for years to come.
What it will do to Gareth Jenkins and Wales remains to be seen but as wonderful as Fiji were they were helped by it being such a loose game. They love that sort of rugby and I cannot understand why Wales allowed the game to become so loose. They had to keep it tight, pick and drive and keep kicking for touch deep in Fiji territory. The Fijian line-out is not that clever. They had to throw it short and that is easy to defend against.
And why did Wales change kickers in the first half? Stephen Jones kicked one and then hit the post and James Hook was then given a kick to miss. The kicking duty went back to Jones, who proceeded to hit the post twice more. Those kicks would have won the game.
And here we were thinking that England and Wales could have burst the South Sea bubble between them this weekend. At least England are through, and I reckon their quarter-final against Australia will be very interesting; I wouldn't write them off too quickly. There are two main areas England need to improve on. First, they need to push up in defence much quicker. They tended to sit back on Friday and Tonga took advantage of the time and space they were given. If England's defenders act so passively against Australia they will be cut to pieces.
Their defence lacks pattern and conviction. They don't seem to know whether to blitz or drift and that's something they have to sort out in the next six days. But they have got to get out of the blocks far faster to stop the space and join the battle of the gain line as rapidly as possible.
Secondly, the inside centre position remains a problem. Olly Barkley struggled defensively on Friday and when Andy Farrell replaced him he brought more of a presence to the position. I was delighted to see Farrell score a good try because his luck since moving over to union has been atrocious. But I wonder if Dan Hipkiss might be a better choice against Australia. The Leicester man brings presence, too, but he also brings pace and England will need as much creative speed as they can get from their midfield.
Be sure that Australia will not be taking England for granted. England have a big pack who are stoking up on form and confidence and an ace kicker who can orchestrate anything. They will be hard to beat.Reuse content