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Wales survive trial by Fijian fire

Sam Warburton has hung up the boots. (AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE)
Roar Guru
2nd October, 2015
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This Thursday night saw Wales ‘host’ Fiji at the Millennium Stadium in one of the many pivotal games in Pool A of the Rugby World Cup.

There were subplots aplenty heading into this match-up. In 2011, Wales had spanked Fiji 66-0 after the Islanders had to deal with a short turnaround of only a few days between matches. The Fijians rightly raised a stink about that, and this time the tables had turned, with Wales only having a four-day rest period between their titanic tussle at Twickenham and this potential banana peel.

Also, back in 2007, Wales had borne the brunt of Fijian flair as they were knocked out of that World Cup after being ambushed 38-34. And being dumped out of World Cups by Pacific Island teams was nothing foreign to the Welsh, as their 1991 and 1999 campaigns were similarly derailed by Samoa.

And then, of course, came the injuries. Oh so many injuries. Wales’ back-line were already stretched thin even before the match at Twickers, but that game took things to new heights – r should I say, lows – in terms of a bulging casualty ward.

And so the match kicked off with both teams having injury concerns of their own. Fiji were without wingers Nemani Nadolo and Waisea Nayacalevu. However, the replacements proved to be more than a handful for the Welsh, as Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Timoci Nagusa caused plenty of problems all game long. Wales had drafted in the Morgans – Tyler and Matthew – along with Alex Cuthbert, to plug the gaps left by injuries to Scott Williams, Hallam Amos, and Liam Williams. Yet there were a few minutes where Lloyd Williams would have to reprise his role of makeshift winger, when Cuthbert went for a concussion check.

As we all know, Wales ultimately won the match 23-13. But there were so many talking points.

Great match, great World Cup
We have been blessed with our fair share of exciting matches in this World Cup already, but this one is right up there in terms of excitement and intensity.

The amount of line-breaks by both teams is just one stat that proves what sort of an attacking game this was, although that can be largely attributed to Welsh tiredness.

Also, unlike the All Blacks-Pumas game – which I regard as the best of the tournament so far – this match was exciting all game long. Right from the early minutes when George North scythed through the Fijian defence, to the last minute of the match, when Jamie Roberts put in a crunching tackle on one of the Fijians, it was edge-of-your-seat stuff.

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Talking about Roberts, it is a testament to the fitness of the Welsh that even in the dying minutes of an extremely physical Test match they found the reserves of energy to still make tackles. There was one carry from Roberts in the 78th minute or so which resembled a violent car crash. Incredible stuff. The Welsh are certainly made of stern stuff. The fact that so many of them still fell like ninepins to injury just goes to show how tough international rugby is.

However, no more injuries from this match (so far) which means that the Welsh can now sit back and watch the Wallabies and England battle it out on Saturday, and then have another week’s rest before facing Michael Cheika’s men, knowing that they may even have qualified for the quarter finals by then. That match will be no foregone conclusion.

One last point about Wales. It seems that this tournament is seeing Dan Biggar blossom into one of the northern hemisphere’s best fly-halves. He has marshalled his team well in general play and seems to be on the same wavelength with half-back Gareth Davies. His kicking is beginning to resemble Leigh Halfpenny’s, although not so much in terms of his pre-kick routine.

Fiji
But enough about Wales. There were two teams in this match, and boy did Fiji give a great account of themselves. Sure, they hadn’t disgraced themselves in their opening two fixtures – but they looked most likely to spring an upset in this match, as they attacked with gusto, something they had oddly been reluctant to do against England.

Let’s look at the positives first. Their scrum once again showed that it is one of the best in the pool. Also, the number of defenders beaten and linebreaks made (29 and 7 respectively) showed that they had a good game in attack. Former Chiefs flyer Asaeli Tikoirotuma was especially prominent, as was lock Leone Nakarawa.

Much of their attacking was down to the fact that they decided to turn this match into a Sevens game. Fiji made 15 offloads in the match, three times that of the Welsh, and had more than a few coast-to-coast efforts, of which one resulted in a glorious try to Niki Goneva. However, playing like this has its disadvantages too, as Fiji dropped the ball on far too many occasions for my, and possibly coach John McKee’s, liking.

Their style of running with the ball in one hand, always looking for the sidestep may work on a Sevens pitch, but when you have three men ganging up on you, ball security is imperative. The amount of times they lost the ball in contact was insane. Fiji conceded 20 turnovers to Wales’ 13.

Also, they missed 27 tackles, and their lineout was not functioning as smoothly as their scrum, which would have annoyed the coaching staff. But nothing would have left them rueful more than Ben Volavola’s two missed kicks at goal, the second of which seemed easier to score.

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That missed kick however, led to the Goneva try from the ensuing play. But in any case, Fiji would have been much closer to Wales had they been better off the tee. These are the areas where Fiji should improve, and I reckon if they do, they will be a real force in the years to come – of course, that is if they play more Tier 1 nations more regularly.

Summary
But to the victors go the spoils, and Wales richly deserved their win, more so because of the fright that Fiji gave them in the second half. They showed immense fortitude to get past this game, and while people are talking up the missed bonus point – just like they did with the Wallabies – I have a feeling that it won’t matter anyway as the Wallabies will triumph over England.

Still, even if they don’t, the Welsh have proven that they are no pushovers in Pool A, and I certainly won’t be betting my house on a Welsh defeat versus the Wallabies.

So I end this article with two questions for you, Roarers. One, would Fiji have qualified from any other Pool in this tournament (I’m thinking of Pools B and D in particular)? Two, how far will Wales go in this World Cup, with and without any more injuries?

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