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.
Dan Biggar is out of contention for Wales’ final Rugby World Cup group game against Uruguay on Sunday.
And Wales could be left sweating on his prospects of facing likely quarter-final opponents France in 11 days’ time.
Centre Jonathan Davies, meanwhile, might also need close monitoring following a punishing Pool D encounter with Fiji that Wales won 29-17 to book a last-eight place.
Fly-half Biggar failed a head injury assessment during Wales’ victory over Australia 10 days ago, but he passed the subsequent return-to-play protocols.
And he will have a head injury assessed after crashing to the ground following a sickening second-half collision with his team-mate Liam Williams, before going off.
“Dan Biggar was removed from the field,” Wales head coach Warren Gatland said.
“He didn’t do a HIA. He was just removed from the field. It means that he won’t be in consideration for Sunday, and he will have to go through protocols. We will probably get someone to look at him as well.”
Davies hurt his knee, and Gatland added: “He will probably be assessed tomorrow, when all players go and have a review of today.
With Biggar out, Rhys Patchell is set to wear the number 10 shirt in a much-changed team against Uruguay, although who would provide fly-half back-up remains to be seen.
“Some players are going to have to back-up, particularly backs. We may go for a 6-2 split on the bench with six forwards,” Gatland said.
“We will weigh those options up in terms of who we think can do the job for us. We’ve got players who may be a little unfamiliar, but we have been running players there at training.”
Wales were pushed to the limit before prevailing through wing Josh Adams’ three tries and a late Williams touchdown that saw them home in bonus point fashion.
But Fiji, who are now out of the tournament, scored two tries in the first 10 minutes before a penalty try meant they regained the lead midway through the second-half.
Gatland added: “We knew Fiji were going to be tough. They’ve got some absolute world-class athletes.
“I would have taken a bonus point from 10-0 down. I thought it showed some great character.
“It was tough, but there was some real character displayed out there, given how hard and physical the game was.”
Gatland also paid tribute to hat-trick hero Adams after he showcased his finishing prowess.
“The way he finished some of those tries, that’s a real skill that he has to get across the line and to do what he does,” Gatland said.
“The second one was a great finish, and I thought he had an outstanding game. He has been a real find for us over the last year or so.”
Fiji head coach John McKee paid tribute to his players following a Herculean effort.
“To take it to such a good Welsh team is credit to all of the players,” McKee said.
“What was pleasing was that we had an opportunity on the world stage to show what this team is capable of. We had to really attack Wales and had to back ourselves to score tries.
“We chanced our arm a little bit and backed our attacking play and put themselves under pressure to see how they reacted, and for large parts of the game that worked very well for us.
“We came here with very high aspirations, and we did really want to get to the play-offs (quarter-finals).
“That was one of our objectives, and we haven’t achieved that, and we are disappointed.
“Having said that, the World Cup is a competitive environment and it’s very difficult to progress from the pool stages for any team. We can go away from this tournament with our heads held high.”
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.