Something magical and unpredictable was at work here, a force Wales were unable to control, and it cost them their place in the World Cup, shockingly and desperately at the pool stage for the third time in six tournaments. Each side had this pivotal final match in Pool B for the taking. Ultimately Wales's impotence when they needed to play a disciplined game sent them home instead of into a Marseilles quarter-final with South Africa. That is Fiji's reward for a clinching try by the loose-head prop, Graham Dewes, in the final five minutes of one of the greatest see-saw rides in World Cup history.
At the final whistle Wales went into a huddle around their captain, Gareth Thomas, who had become the eighth man to reach 100 caps. "I told them it can be the most brilliant thing and the most desperate thing in the world to be a Welsh rugby player, but life goes on," Thomas said. "I am devastated that we're out and that the journey of sweating blood for each other is all of a sudden at an end." It was dignified and almost poetic and, without saying so specifically, Thomas indicated his international career was over too.
By contrast the Wales head coach, Gareth Jenkins, vowed to carry on, though there will be calls aplenty for the Welsh Rugby Union to take a different course. Jenkins's contract is up in April and after six wins in 20 matches he pleaded against a knee-jerk reaction. It may be the WRU let him complete his written review of the tournament before any change is made.
For Wales to go out to a tiny Pacific Island nation – recalling the epoch-making defeat to Western Samoa in 1991 – was gut-wrenching and largely inexcusable. The lesson of an early break by Stephen Jones, when he beat off three tacklers, was that if Wales secured enough ball they would prosper. Putting it into practice, however, proved problematic; it only really went right in a spell of 19 Welsh points early in the second half.
Fiji were unready to follow Samoa and Tonga out of the tournament. In 10 extraordinary minutes around the midpoint of the first half they turned a 3-0 deficit – Stephen Jones's fifth-minute penalty – into a 25-3 lead.
Akapusi Qera's multi-phase try began the blitz, with Nicky Little converting, then Vilimoni Delasau on the right wing ran, hacked and punted his way to a wonderful solo try. Rattled, Wales gave up two penalties to Little at the breakdown and bad went to worse when Qera burst from one 22 to the other and the big lock, Kele Leawere, forced his way over, Little converting.
So Wales were into catch-up mode after half an hour. They took scrums and line-outs instead of kicks at goal, and at one scrum Alix Popham at the base dotted down the first Wales try. Jones, probably still shaken after a high tackle from Little, ceded the kicking tee to Hook who thrashed the conversion over.
The try appeared to flick a switch for Wales, belatedly tuning them into the need to match Fiji's physicality. Popham and Colin Charvis put in rousing tackles. Popham took a cheap shot from behind by Leawere, then Qera planted his knee into Stephen Jones and went to the sin-bin. It was the opening Wales wanted. With three lavish tries in six minutes – two of them while Qera was off – they got back in front. Shane Williams sprinted 75 metres and finished with a couple of sidesteps, Gareth Thomas was fed by Mark Jones to score and Jones the wing went in himself from Hook's pass. Two conversions by Stephen Jones had Wales 29-25 up, to the relief of around 25,000 red-jerseyed followers in a stadium, colourful and noisy, which grew more tumultuous by the minute.
Twist followed turn. Two more Little penalties edged Fiji ahead. The TV match official ruled Gareth Thomas had tackled Seremaia Bai into touch in the 71st minute but the Welsh fans were too nervous to cheer. They found their voices two minutes later when Little's pass was intercepted by Martyn Williams and the flanker hared away to put Wales ahead, 34-31. Stephen Jones' conversion hit a post.
Very soon Williams was back at the other end, thwarting Delasau with a fantastic tackle, but Dewes, with his pack's help, was not to be stopped. The thumbs-up from the video referee was the cue for a fine conversion by Little and Wales, crazily and sadly, were out while Fiji, for the first time, marched into the last eight.
Wales: G Thomas (Cardiff Blues, capt); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Blues), J Hook, S Williams (both Ospreys); S Jones, D Peel (both Scarlets); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), C Horsman (Worcester), A-W Jones , I Evans (both Ospreys), C Charvis (Newport-Gwent Dragons), A Popham (Scarlets), M Williams (Blues). Replacements: TR Thomas (Blues) for Rees, 45; M Phillips (Ospreys) for Peel, 57; D Jones (Ospreys) for Horsman, 65; I Gough (Ospreys) for Evans, 65; M Owen (Dragons) for Popham, 65.
Fiji: K Ratuvou (Saracens); V Delasau (Clermont), S Rabeni (Leicester), S Bai (Clermont), I Neivua (Nadroga); N Little (Padova), M Rauluni (Saracens, capt); G Dewes (Auckland Marist), S Koto (Suva), J Railomo (Piteia), K Leawere (Hino Motors), I Rawaqa (World Fighting Bull), S Naevo (NEC Green Rockets), S Koyamaibole (Padova), A Qera (Gloucester). Replacements: S Bobo (Metro-Racing) for Neivua, 52; H Qiodravu (Orléans) for Railomo, 54; N Ligairi (Brive) for Rabeni, 66; A Ratuva (Nadroga) for Qera, 73; V Sauturaga (Naitasiri) for Koto, 77; J Daunivucu (Tarbes) for Little, 80.
Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).Reuse content