Wales cemented their place in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals and reaffirmed their stance as favourites to win Pool D with a thrilling 29-17 win over Fiji.
It was a stunning game of rugby that ebbed and flowed, with ferocious hits, fluid play and yellow cards all flashing throughout.
The Flying Fijians roared into an early two-try lead through Josua Tuisova and Kini Murimurivalu with a third penalty try and subsequent yellow for James Davies putting them in the ascendancy early in the second half.
But Wales winger Josh Adams scored a hat-trick, including a terrific third try that defied gravity, to regain a semblance of control, with Liam Williams’ score confirming a bonus point and edging Wales home.
Wales, just like in their narrow victory over Australia, stood up to the test. And that uncanny ability to win under pressure is what leads off our talking points.
DRAGONS LIKE THE HEAT
Wales have been efficient rather than effervescent so far at the World Cup and formidable challenges lie ahead. But just how much will their mental and physical toughness, insatiable work-rate and sheer will count when the going gets tough in the knockout stages?
New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia have all shown a cutting edge in cutting loose against some of the tournament’s minnows. And while Wales showed a killer instinct and also put some much-needed panache into their opening performance against Georgia, they’ve had to dig deep in their last two games – physical and mentally-draining tests against the Wallabies and this absolute barn burner.
These battles have taken their toll – with Dan Biggar now suffering concussions in back-to-back matches and the medical team overseeing a group of walking wounded.
But, ultimately, Wales’ resilience and fortitude has come to the fore as successive bonus point victories have been achieved when, in years gone by, the Dragons would have melted when thrown into the melting pot of such intense encounters.
They stubbornly held on for victory against the Aussies, who had roared back into the contest in the second half having been engulfed by a wave of Welsh pressure and self-sabotage in the opening half. Welsh teams of the past would have unquestionably lost that game in the closing stages – history is a harsh reminder. But despite losing pivot Biggar they stood tall, with Rhys Patchell navigating them home.
In the midst of a flying start from the Flying Fijians on Wednesday they did not lose their composure, hanging tough when it looked as if they would be cast aside; their class eventually shining through.
With the business end of proceedings on the horizon, this gritty resolve could be key to winning a maiden Webb Ellis Cup.
FIJI A RISING FORCE
Fiji have long been a formidable foe for any Tier 1 opponent. But the work John McKee has done with the nation in his five years in charge has gone beyond the sheer physicality and speed which was always a joy to watch.
Their flair and ferociousness has always thrilled. But they are so much more than that now and will be one of the most disappointed teams going home at the pool stage.
The fear they scattered among Australia and Wales coaches, players and fans alike was tangible and poses the very legitimate question: can it really be too much longer before they start knocking on the Tier 1 door?
Results like Wednesday’s spirited defeat capture the imagination, as did the 23-20 loss to Ireland a few years ago. But ones like the 21-14 victory over France last November and pair of June 2017 triumphs over Scotland (27-22) and Italy (22-19) ram home the feeling that the Flying Fijians deserve to soar with the elite.
After all, Italy’s continued inclusion in the Six Nations has long been a topic of discussion in northern hemisphere rugby circles, while Scotland’s travails in recent years has also called into question their standing in Tier 1.
It is a conversation into which Japan have also catapulted themselves since their shock against the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup – enhanced further by their shimmering start at their home tournament.
Momentum only reverberates when considering the duo’s world rankings. Fiji are 11th, Japan 8th. Both are above the Azzurri in 12th, while the Brave Blossoms currently outrank both Scotland and Argentina.
The Pumas have played in the Rugby Championship since 2012, would Fiji look so out of place there too?
USA boss Gary Gold last month called on Tier 1 nations to commit to playing Tier 2 opponents more regularly in order to close the gap. Japan and Fiji certainly deserve an opportunity to compete with the best more often.
Whatever is on the horizon, Fiji are flourishing and a bright future is in front of them.
UP AND ADAMS
Josh Adams joined a couple of illustrious clubs on Wednesday with a hat-trick of tries against Fiji. His treble of touchdowns against the Pacific Islanders was the 66th time a hat-trick had been scored at a World Cup and made him the 61st different player to score three times in a match – Jeff Wilson, Vincent Clerc, Bryan Habana, Julian Savea and Adam Ashley-Cooper have all achieved the feat twice.
The Cardiff Blues speed merchant also became just the sixth member of an exclusive club of Welsh players to score a treble at the tournament. Opened by fellow wing Glen Webbe all the way back at the first World Cup in 1987 – he was the third scorer of a hat-trick at the tournament – Ieuan Evans signed up days later with a treble against Canada. Gareth Thomas was welcomed eight years later in South Africa, Scott Williams entered in 2011 and Cory Allen joined in 2015.
And Adams is now part of the secret society, and cements a growing reputation that has been established rapidly by the 24-year-old Swansea-born player. Adams only made his Wales debut last year but has since gone on to exert a vice-like grip on the No11 jersey, with relative veteran George North the powerful yin to his elusive yang on the other flank.
At the time of his debut against Scotland in the Six Nations in February last year, Adams lined up alongside fellow prospect Steff Evans – then deemed the brighter talent. But Adams has thrived and often pops up with big tries in big games.
His 77th minute score against England in the Six Nations at the start of this year proved to be decisive in a 21-13 victory, while his searing speed and uncanny ability to escape defenders came to the fore as he rinsed Blair Kinghorn to open Wales’ account at Murrayfield two weeks later.
Adams delivered once again in Oita on Wednesday, his tally giving him eight tries from 17 Tests. He is on his way to joining the pantheon of Welsh wing wonders.
Know more about Sport360 Application