Wales earn bonus-point win through Elliot Dee and hold off Fiji fightback

An extraordinary match that so nearly produced a denouement to die for. Fiji, fitter than they have ever been, stretched Wales to the very end, only for Semi Radradra to spill a bouncing ball with the line at his mercy, the clock in the red.

What a comeback it would have been, Fiji down by 18 points with 14 to go. And popular. How popular.

In the end, Wales’s nous, so used to an old-world status in rugby terms well above that of Fiji, saw them through. They have suffered their own trials of late, finding themselves three places below the Islanders in the world rankings, but their four tries left Fiji with just too much to make up. After England’s riposte to the doubters, this bonus-point win was a further fillip for Britain’s ailing powers.

“I’m delighted with the result,” said Warren Gatland. “Everyone expected Fiji to win. They’re a quality team, but we looked comfortable after 65 minutes. But Fiji can hurt you. I thought we showed a lot of courage.”

These days it’s hard to know how seriously to take the latest world rankings. The night before we had seen the eighth-ranked team dismantle the sixth, despite playing almost the whole match with 14 men. Here we had the unfamiliar concept of Fiji in seventh, lording it over multiple “Tier 1” teams, including the opposition, Wales, in 10th.

Certainly, if set-piece solidity and basic physicality were any gauge, there was little to choose between the sides. It was in both midfields that the naivety was exposed. Wales took the early lead. After a penalty by Dan Biggar, George North was sprung through the midfield in the seventh minute. Smooth hands by Biggar and Liam Williams sent Jack Adams over for the game’s first try.

So far, so Tier 1, but Fiji did not panic. Waisea Nayacalevu scooped up a loose ball in midfield and cruised easily through to the line. In the 17th minute, Fiji were over again. Same route but more elaborately constructed. Nayacalevu made a half-break to put through Radradra. He probably could have blasted his way through the last defender, but he chose instead to lay on the scoring pass to Lekima Tagitagivalu, who cantered home.

Wales were far from dominant, but they were efficient in their points gathering. Another Biggar penalty followed, before North scored their second, put through that midfield again by his partner in the centre Nick Tompkins, earning Wales an 18-14 lead they would take to the break.

The test confronting Fiji became all the more severe within 10 minutes of the restart. That midfield again. This time Tompkins burst through it from a scrum on halfway, precipitating a mad interchange between Adams and Williams down the left. When the ball was sent right, Louis Rees-Zammit had time to gather and sprint to the corner. Even the Fijians find him too fast for comfort. Biggar converted from the touchline.

Fiji had to respond. A couple of penalties secured them position for a prolonged assault on Wales’s line around the hour mark. Five times Wales were penalised in those minutes, but only at the fifth were they given a warning. Fiji sent wave after wave of fearsome carriers at the line, but by fair means or foul, Wales absorbed them. Finally, Fiji knocked on over the line. That seemed their moment.

Even more so, when all the worst suspicions of old-world bias bubbled up next. Having failed to reach for his pocket despite all those penalties Wales had just conceded on their line, the referee showed Fiji yellow at the very next offence, Tagitagivalu singled out. Wales kicked the penalty to the corner and had little trouble driving Elliot Dee to the line against the depleted Fiji pack.

“It’s pretty tough to talk when you’re hot after the match,” said Simon Raiwalui, Fiji’s coach. “The referees have a tough job, but as a coach you’re just looking for that consistency.”

For neutrals it left a sour taste in the mouth, but those in red shirts were jubilant enough. Even when Wales were finally shown a yellow minutes later, Corey Domachowski the culprit, it mattered little to them with such a lead and less than a quarter of an hour to play.

Fiji were not finished. They went for the corner again to set up another siege. This time they did manage to scramble over, Josua Tuisova’s muscularity too much for Wales to hold.

There were seven minutes to play, but those neutrals bayed in fury as Wales took an age to restart, and then again to take the next lineout. Old-world tricks adroitly played.

But Fiji burst clear down the right to set up more pressure. Peni Ravai thought he had bundled his way over but was denied by a double movement. No matter, his fellow prop Mesake Doge succeeded two minutes later to pull Fiji back to within a score with 90 seconds left.

Incredibly, it seemed as if they might complete the comeback, but Radradra just could not gather the final pass. If he had, no one could have complained.

 

Story first published on The Guardian

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Author: 
Michael Aylwin at the Stade de Bordeaux