Wales survived a major fright to subdue flamboyant Fiji 29-17 at Oita Stadium and book their place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Warren Gatland’s team recovered from conceding two tries in the opening 10 minutes to wing Josua Tuisova and full-back Kini Murimurivalu as Fiji showcased their sevens genius in spectacular fashion.
But wing Josh Adams touched down twice before half-time and then completed his hat-trick to secure a potential last-eight clash against France.
Dan Biggar, who went off after a nasty collision, kicked two conversions and Rhys Patchell added a conversion and penalty, but Wales were pushed to the limit before full-back Liam Williams’ late try clinched a bonus-point triumph.
Fiji’s defeat means they are out of the tournament, yet they exited in style despite having two players sin-binned, by testing every sinew of Wales’ character and resolve.
Wales showed two changes in their line-up, with flanker James Davies and number eight Ross Moriarty both making their first starts of the tournament.
🏴 @WelshRugbyUnion have qualified for the #RWC2019 quarter-finals, but coach Warren Gatland is not looking past the final Pool D match against @RugbyUruguay 👁#WALvFIJ #RWCOita pic.twitter.com/DqA8ArqWF1— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 9, 2019
Edinburgh back-row forward Viliame Mata, meanwhile, featured as Fiji’s solitary switch following a bonus-point victory over Georgia last week.
Fiji served immediate notice of their attacking flair when lock Leone Nakarawa’s defence-splitting pass had Wales in trouble.
And Wales were then undone from an attacking scrum, with possession quickly moved and wing Tuisova applying a one-handed finish for a superb try.
Flanker Josh Navidi looked to have hauled Wales level two minutes later when he crossed Fiji’s line, but the score was ruled out for a knock-on by centre Hadleigh Parkes.
Fiji continued to stretch their opponents, though, and scrum-half Frank Lomani saw a try disallowed before Wales hooker Ken Owens was sin-binned.
Gatland’s side were all over the place and they conceded a second try when Murimurivalu touched down in the corner.
The Six Nations champions did not know what had hit them as Fiji began to evoke memories of their stunning World Cup victory over Wales in Nantes 12 years ago.
Fiji lock Tevita Cavubati followed Owens into the sin-bin for an offence at a ruck, and Wales responded with an opening try after Adams caught Biggar’s kick to touch down, with the latter converting.
Wales regrouped impressively and Fiji had a second player sin-binned when flanker Semi Kunatani saw yellow for deliberate offside.
Relentless pressure had to tell and Fiji could not hold out as Adams touched down again, before Biggar’s conversion made it 14-10 at the interval.
Fiji had no intention of going quietly, with Wales stretched defensively during the second half’s opening minutes.
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones’ handling error under no pressure in midfield illustrated how much of an impact Fiji had made on the game, and Davies was then sin-binned for killing possession.
Davies had hardly made his way off the pitch when the Wales forwards pulled down a Fiji driving maul and referee Jerome Garces awarded a penalty try that meant Wales trailed 17-14 after 54 minutes.
Patchell replaced Biggar after an ugly mid-air collision with Williams and he immediately kicked a long-range penalty that tied the scoreline.
It was a thrilling and pulsating contest, with Wales hoping their fitness levels might prove decisive as the game entered its closing quarter.
And when centre Jonathan Davies made a slashing break, his cheeky offload put Adams in and he finished brilliantly to complete his hat-trick, giving Wales a five-point advantage.
Williams’ touchdown sealed the deal for Wales, prevailing following a memorable encounter that saw them repeatedly dig deep to emerge victorious.
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.”