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.
James Davies reacted to his Rugby World Cup selection against Fiji by telling Wales boss Warren Gatland he had “finally seen the light”.
And Gatland admitted that he loved the Scarlets flanker’s response, having named him among two changes from the side that beat Australia eight days ago.
Davies replaces Justin Tipuric for a World Cup debut, while Ross Moriarty packs down at number eight and Josh Navidi switches to blindside flanker.
“When I congratulated James and said well done, his reply was, ‘You have finally seen the light, have you?’ He said he was only joking,” Gatland said.
“I loved that. I thought it was brilliant, a great response. I love a bit of banter like that and I have no problem with comments like that.
“It just says to me that players believe in their own ability and they want to be in the squad and they think they are good enough to be in the starting side.
“Justin was disappointed, but he will probably start the game against Uruguay and bring some experience to that side.
“He was tight in his quad (thigh muscle) before Australia. He was 100 per cent fit for that game and he was 100 per cent available for this game as well. We are trying to look at that bigger picture.”
Gatland has otherwise kept the starting line-up that accounted for Georgia and Australia in Wales’ first two World Cup games.
Davies will feature alongside his brother – centre Jonathan – as Wales target a third successive World Cup victory over Fiji following successes in 2011 and 2015.
And fly-half Dan Biggar, who failed a head injury assessment during the Wallabies clash in Tokyo eight days ago, is fit to resume.
If Wales beat Fiji and then defeat Uruguay next Sunday, they will reach the last-eight as unbeaten group winners for the first time in a World Cup campaign since 1987.
Gatland added: “When Fiji get some confidence and belief they are incredibly dangerous and they were really strong in that second half (against Georgia).
“They have got some real threats and we have just got to make sure we focus on ourselves.
“They are dangerous, so we’ve got to make sure we shut their space down and shut their time on their ball.
“One of the pleasing things of the first two games is how we well we’ve started.
“Our starts have been exceptional and it is important that we start well on Wednesday and hopefully take a little bit of that excitement away from Fiji.
“We are in control of our own destiny, we know that, and there are a lot of benefits about winning the group in terms of turnaround time and choices of hotels and stuff.
“Psychologically, you win the group and win your four games, you are up against a team that has lost a game. We haven’t spoken at all about potential quarter-final opponents.
“It is important we focus 100 per cent on Fiji, and then we have got a four-day turnaround to Uruguay, which is going to be challenging as well, and then get through that and then we can start thinking about what’s further on down the line.”
Billy Vunipola will discover the severity of his ankle injury on Tuesday as England sweat over his availability for the climax to their Rugby World Cup group campaign against France.
Vunipola failed to appear for the second-half of the 39-10 victory over Argentina on Saturday that guaranteed their presence in the quarter-finals with the Pool C finale at International Stadium Yokohama still to play.
The marauding Saracens number eight is the only player to have started all 12 of England’s games this year and the overwhelming priority will be to ensure he is fit for the last eight.
“Billy has had a scan and we will have a clearer picture tomorrow (Tuesday),” scrum coach Neal Hatley said.
“He is being assessed, that will go on throughout the day and then we’ll see how he pulls up. He has another 24 hours and then we’ll make a firm diagnosis.”
If Vunipola fails to pull through then Tom Curry or Mark Wilson will deputise in the back row, but his absence will still have a significant impact on England’s ball carrying.
Mako Vunipola made his comeback from a hamstring injury against Argentina and would fill the void, but Hatley insists there are other options in the Red Rose ranks.
“We plan for all eventualities and with what we have got in Ellis Genge, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Kyle Sinckler, there are people to pick up the slack when Mako and Billy don’t play,” Hatley said.
“We have played a lot of rugby without them. Billy is an important figure for us, but other people pick up the slack.”