Wales fended off a frenzied Fijian assault to emerge 32-26 victors in their opening World Cup Pool C clash in Bordeaux on Sunday, giving themselves every chance of advancing to the quarter-finals.
Victory in the raucous, freewheeling contest offers a beleaguered Welsh squad redemption after losing six of eight internationals in 2023, while Fiji’s hopes of advancing already look dented for all their recent progress.
Victory was almost stolen at the end by the Pacific islanders who were fighting back from an 18-point deficit and could have completed an unlikely comeback before Fiji’s star centre Semi Radradra, of all players, knocked on with the tryline in sight.
Both teams scored four tries in a game full of line breaks, exciting running and bruising clashes that had the crowd on the edge of their seats, especially at the end as Fiji fought back from 32-14 down.
“We always seem to make it hard for ourselves, but what we make up for with effort and courage and determination is just huge for this team,” flyhalf Dan Biggar said after marshalling the Welsh resistance.
Josh Adams, George North, Louis Rees-Zammit and Elliot Dee crossed over for Wales with Dan Biggar adding two penalties and three conversions while Waisea Nayacalevu, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Josua Tuisova and Mesake Doge were Fiji’s try scorers.
This was always set to be a tense and emotional clash, pitting two teams against each other who have met five World Cups in a row, who both punch above their weight given their resources, and above all, who are desperate to progress from the group at the other’s expense.
It was also a clash of styles. Wales attempted to create space for runners with drilled pattern play and long passes, while Fiji simply tried to line up isolated defenders all night before side-stepping or smashing them.
Both sides’ centre pairings were prominent in a bruising first half.
Wales sent North carving through the middle from a lineout play before recycling left to put Adams away in the corner for their first try.
It was North again for Wales’ second score, running a thundering direct line through the middle to collect a Nick Tompkins offload and go over.
But if Wales’ centres were on fire, Fiji’s were just as good for the two first-half scores that came between the Welsh tries.
‘Play like Fijians’
Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui had urged his side before the game to ‘play like Fijians’. They took him at his word.
Outside centre Nayacalevu, England’s tormentor-in-chief in Fiji’s Aug. 26 win at Twickenham, struck for the fourth game in a row here with frightening ease, blasting through an attempted Biggar tackle and running clear.
His centre partner Radradra moments later made a crunching break from a Nayacalevu offload, before cutting inside and offloading himself for flanker Tagitagivalu to score.
But Wales would not wilt under the pressure.
Adams exemplified their resilience with a thundering hit on Fiji’s winger Selesitino Ravutaumada in the 50th minute that left him flat on the deck and the Welsh bench roaring in defiance.
Wales then pulled away in the second half through scores from Rees-Zammit and replacement hooker Dee, and had appeared to wrest control of the clash, before a Fiji comeback sent the stadium into delirium.
With the score poised at 32-26 in favour of the Welsh and the clock in the red, neutral fan-favourites Fiji launched waves of rolling attacks as they sought victory.
But Radrada’s spill out wide in the clammy late night heat signalled it was not to be for Fiji, who must once again rue missed opportunities for all their scintillating play.
Wales next play Portugal on Sept. 16 in Nice, while Fiji play Australia the next day in Saint-Etienne.