Wales face Fiji in a mouthwatering encounter at the Rugby World Cup on Wednesday, with victory crucial to both teams’ hopes of progressing to the knockout stages.
The Dragons put themselves in the driving seat for top spot when they overcame Australia with a gritty 29-25 win in their previous game and any sort of triumph in Oita will put them back above the Wallabies.
But Fiji, previously humbled by minnows Uruguay having also lost a heartbreaker to the Aussies on opening night, go into the clash as a dangerous prospect, with their ferocious and flair runners set to provide Warren Gatland’s men with a stern test.
Nothing but a win will do for the Pacific Islanders if they are to reach the quarter-finals. But they have history of doing so in this fixture, and that is where we kick off our talking points…
NOT ANOTHER NANTES
It wasn’t quite on the scale of Japan v South Africa or Ireland, or even Fiji’s loss to Uruguay at this tournament, but it was a result that reverberated around the globe when the Flying Fijians put Wales on an early plane home 12 years ago.
The Dragons had destroyed Canada and Japan either side of a defeat to the Wallabies, but they were left torched following a tumultuous defeat after a terrific Test match in Nantes. The 38-34 result – secured thanks to Graham Dewes’ dashing try in the 77th minute – sent Fiji through to the knockouts at Wales’ expense, and remains one of Welsh rugby’s lowest ebbs.
It was a result that ultimately ushered in the Gatland era as Gareth Jenkins was sacked following their exit – Wales’ third such departure at the first hurdle from eight tournaments.
That celebrated day remains Fiji’s sole victory over Wales in 11 encounters, and Gatland’s team have triumphed at both of the previous World Cups over the island nation – including a 66-0 walloping in Waikato when they met in the pool eight years ago.
However, their combined margin of victory in the two most recent meetings have been by a slender 14 points. And the Welsh have more to lose coming into the game as a slip-up here would likely leave them finishing second, meaning a quarter-final showdown with fierce foes England.
A TITANIC TUSSLE
Fiji have both wowed and underwhelmed so far in Japan. Their performance for 60 minutes in the opening pool game against an out of sorts Australia was ferocious as they battered and stretched the Wallaby defence in Sapporo.
Michael Cheika’s side – knowing the key game in the pool was on the horizon against Wales – might have had one eye on that fixture, but they quickly became fixated on Fiji after a roaring start left the green and gold trailing 21-12 minutes into the second half following hulking centre Waisea Nayacalevu’s converted try.
It had followed powerful Peceli Yato’s first-half score and a pattern of play that suggested the islanders were on course for a first victory over the Aussies since 1954. Alas, it was not to be as a stunning fightback saw those in white surrender amid a 16-minute period in which four tries were scored by Cheika’s side.
Fiji were finished and perhaps that even fed into the thought process ahead of their South American shock in the following game.
While Wales will know they are in for a pulsating fight, Gatland and his coaching staff will hope to capitalise on their opponents’ errant consistency. We also know they will fight fire with fire as the Dragons possess their own firebrands – in terms of power and ingenuity.
Physical players like Number 8 Ross Moriarty, flanker Josh Navidi and winger George North will relish the battle, while Liam Williams, Gareth Davies and Jonathan Davies will be the keys to unlocking a fierce but also flimsy defence.
WALES’ TALE OF BROTHERLY LOVE
Gatland makes just two changes to the starting XV that pulled off that nail-biting victory over Australia. Moriarty is a familiar face, having risen to prominence under Gatland, and the powerhouse Gloucester back-rower will win his 37th cap.
The other change is also in the back row, but the name is less familiar. The surname, Davies, rings a bell. Not only because it is hugely popular throughout Wales, but also because James Davies’ big brother is Wales centre Jonathan. Capped 78 times, he is a pivotal playmaker in this team and possibly the best outside centre in world rugby.
Younger brother James is 28 but will be winning just his sixth cap after a career where injuries, form and a formidably deep Welsh back row have all curtailed his chances.
“Cubby”, James’ nickname, is partly in reference to Jonathan’s moniker “Fox”, because he is older, but also refers to the Fox & Hounds pub their parents run in their home village of Bancyfelin, near Carmarthen.
While 29-year-old big brother is an understated and quiet character, younger sibling James is jovial, bedecked in tattoos and more outspoken, as Gatland pointed out earlier in the week when he told him he’d be starting the Fiji game.
The head coach said the player’s response was: “You’ve finally seen the light, have you?”, which Gatland said he liked as it showed James’ persona – light-hearted but a grafter, who had very much earned his chance.
When the brothers played against England in a warm-up match in Cardiff in August, they became the first siblings to play together for Wales since Jamie and Nicky Robinson in 2006.
Against Fiji, they will become the first to do so at a World Cup since Scott and Craig Quinnell in 1999.
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