Rugby World Cup: Bruised Wales grind out victory over determined Fiji
Gatland must regenerate squad to face Uruguay but will almost certainly top Pool D
Wales’ Jonathan Davies holds off Fiji’s Jale Vatubua during his side’s win at Oita Stadium. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
Wales 29 Fiji 17
The last scene was desperately sad to witness. Fijians, each man alone, down on one knee, praying or simply gasping for air. Sore-looking Welsh men picked them up but they know they are better than this. They know they deserve better than this.
The World Cup moves on without rugby’s true artists.
Fiji remains a sporting tragedy. Their tournament is over now, cursed by a four-day turnaround that led to Uruguay’s momentous victory in Kamaishi after being scandalously denied the chance to beat a 14-man Australia, they leave Japan filled with regrets.
This is rugby’s greatest sin. The Pacific Islanders should be eternal contenders, champions elect even, instead their fate is to be also-rans, yet again.
“It’s amazingly complicated to get tours together,” said Fiji coach John McKee. “If we could play more Tier One Test matches that would be great.”
The supreme rugby nation, ransacked of teenage magicians by – take your pick from – French clubs, New Zealand schools, Rugby League, were so thrillingly effective that the Grand Slam Welsh could barely cope with the power, the pace and most of all the panache.
Just like they frightened the Wallabies, this Super Typhoon faded in the face of structured rugby. Still, it took 68 minutes before Liam Williams claimed the bonus point by carving through a litter of white jerseys.
Warren Gatland must regenerate his squad to face Uruguay on Sunday but they will almost certainly top Pool D with the loser of France versus England waiting in the quarter-final.
Fiji go home.
The referees remain a central narrative. Here was yet another night full of big calls, Jerome Garces brandishing four yellow cards and disallowing four tries, but at least the officials are communicating with clarity in their quest to eradicate human error.
This was an unbelievably difficult game to handle as Semi Radradra caused bedlam in Welsh ranks whenever he attacked. He’s so obviously a superstar (destined to return to Rugby League unless a French club intervenes).
It took a rampant Fiji three minutes to splinter Wales. Josh Adams’s left wing was repeatedly targeted and not because he’s a poor defender but due to the best finisher in the business being Josua Tuisova. The Lyon winger bumped Adams before touching down with balletic skill despite Dan Biggar and Josh Navidi hanging from his massive limbs.
Ben Volavola missed the touch line conversion.
The clock showed only seven minutes when Fiji struck again. Radradra’s offload put scrumhalf Frank Lomani over but the ball was deemed to have gone forward. No try. Wales got a double let-off as the officials decided Ken Owens’s tip tackle on Viliame Mata only warranted a yellow card.
“The white player lands on his back,” said Garces. “In my view it will be a yellow card against two red.”
“I agree with you,” said television match official Ben Skeen.
Fiji captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu wondered aloud: “Not dangerous?”
From the next play fullback Kini Murimurivalu ignored the Tuisova option – having slipped another attempted tackle by Adams – to make it 10-0. Volavola missed another touchline conversion. It mattered.
Adams was not going to take the shame of coughing up two scores lying down. He responded with a stunning hat-trick. The first coming off a perfect kick pass by Biggar.
Wales had settled. The numerical advantage disappeared when Tevita Cavubati walked for what Garces deemed a “clear shoulder charge in the back”.
“Captains,” yelled the French whistler. “16 minutes and two yellow cards. We need the discipline!”
Fiji openside Semi Kunatani brought it up to three yellows for blatant offside on 28 minutes. That’s when the Wales scrum turned the screw. Adams profited with his second try down the short side. Biggar nailed a second difficult conversion to leave Wales 14-10 ahead at the turn.
Fiji kept threatening to rip them open. Volavola almost grabbed an insanely ambitious intercept. Tuisova was denied a second try by another borderline forward pass. Radradra was magnificent. That right foot stutter step and lethal distribution is why all the Rugby League vultures are circling.
When James Davies brought the sin bin count to four, for killing ball, the Fijians’ maul forced a penalty try from Garces.
The game was still alive.
Biggar’s head blow on 55 minutes showed the gruesome side of rugby. It was a treble knock as Liam Williams’s elbow caught his outhalf mid-air, he smashed on to the grass and then caught Williams’s leg. Biggar has a history of concussion. He jogged off the pitch. There was no need for a head injury assessment.
“He has to go through the protocols and we’ll have to have someone look at him as well,” said Gatland.
Rhys Patchell arrived and Wales did not miss a beat. All their British Lions stood up. Alun Wyn Jones put a tremendous hit in on Mata. Then, on the hour mark, Jonathan Davies’s clean fend on Jale Vatubua and out the back offload saw Adams dive over at the corner flag. It was Fijian in style.
Players were dropping all over the paddock, Davies and Adams were both forced off, as Fiji refused to go quietly, punching holes in the usually impenetrable Shaun Edwards’s constructed defensive line.
Radradra emptied Williams in another heavy collision but the brilliant Saracens fullback found space when it really mattered.
Scoring sequence - 3 mins: J Tuisova try, 5-0; 8 mins: K Murimurivalu try, 10-0; 17 mins: J Adams try, 10-5; D Biggar con, 10-7; 30 mins: J Adams try, 10-12; D Biggar con, 10-14; 54 mins: Pen Try, 17-14; 57 mins: R Patchell pen, 17-17; 60 mins: J Adams try 17-22; 68 mins: L Williams try, 17-27; R Patchell con 17-29.
Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parks, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt); Josh Navidi, James Davies, Ross Moriarty. Replacements: E Dee for J Davies (14-18 mins, 67 mins), Rhys Patchell for D Biggar (55 mins), Owen Watkin for J Davies (61 mins), Aaron Wainwright for J Davies (67 mins), Thomos Williams for J Adams (69 mins), Rhys Care for W Jones, Dillon Lewis for T Francis, Aaron Shingler for J Ball (all 70 mins). Yellow cards: Ken Owens (7-17 mins), James Davies (52-62 mins).
Fiji: Kini Murimurivalu; Josua Tuisova, Waisea Nayacalevu, Levani Botia, Semi Radradra; Ben Volavola, Frank Lomani; Campese Ma’afu, Samuel Matavesi, Manasa Saulo; Tevita Cavubati Leone Nakarawa; Dominiko Waqaniburotu (capt), Semi Kunatani, Viliame Mata. Replacements: Joe Vatubua for L Botica (32 mins), Peni Ravai for M Saulo (51 mins), Eroni Mawi for C Ma’afu (half-time), Peceli Yato for V Mata (62 mins), Api Ratuniyarawa for T Cavubati (63 mins), Nikola Matawalu for F Lomani (67 mins), Mesulame Dolokoto for S Matavesi (70 mins). Yellow cards: Tevita Cavubati (16-26 mins), Semi Kunatani (28-38 mins).
Referee: Jérome Garces (France).