Rugby

Upset defeat to Fiji in 2007 looms over Wales

AP

The Fijians have beaten Wales before at the Rugby World Cup, winning a thrilling last group game to reach the 2007 quarterfinals at their expense.

Wales won’t be knocked out of contention this time if it loses Wednesday’s match at Oita Stadium, because it has won its first two games against Georgia and Australia and still has last-place Uruguay left to play in Pool D. Victory over Fiji will secure a spot in the quarterfinals against either England or France.

But assistant coach Stephen Jones will be ramming the message home to his players not to lose focus against Fiji. He is well placed to know the consequences of any lapses, having played at flyhalf in that 38-34 defeat 12 years ago.

“It highlighted what Fijian rugby is all about,” Jones said. “Give them space and time and they move the ball well and have an offloading game and put you under pressure,” Jones said. “They did that day and scored some wonderful tries.”

Fiji’s confidence often dictates how well the team plays and the players have been erratic so far in Japan. Head coach John McKee’s lineup played brilliantly to lead at halftime before losing to two-time champion Australia 39-21, and was then shocked 30-27 by Uruguay in one of the tournament’s big upsets.

Facing criticism back home, the under-pressure Fijians trounced Georgia 45-10. Left winger Semi Radradra was mesmerizing, setting up tries with brilliant offloads and scoring two of his own.

“Fiji have got quality players with a lot of X-factor. The biggest message for us is stopping that threat and not getting drawn into playing the Fiji way,” Wales hooker Ken Owens said. “Our game plan is going to be about stopping their X-factor players on the gain line. We have got massive respect for Fiji, but we have got a lot of quality as well.”

Six Nations champion Wales has shown glimpses of its best form in Japan, but not over an entire game.

Warren Gatland’s lineup beat Georgia 43-14 and held off Australia 29-25, losing intensity in the second half both times.

From leading Georgia 29-0 it was pegged back after the break.

Dominating 26-8 against the Wallabies three minutes into the second half, the Welsh players were just hanging on by the end.

“We would have liked to attack a little bit more in that second half against Australia,” Owens said. “We are slowly building that momentum so there is a lot more to come, which is a great position to be in having had a win against Australia.”

Fiji’s realistic aim is finishing third and qualifying automatically for the 2023 World Cup.

“For the Flying Fijians, it’s an opportunity to show everyone what we’re capable of,” McKee said. “There is a lot at stake for Wales and they want to finish top of the pool in their passage to the playoffs.”

The Fijians have unpredictable brilliance, but the diversity of the Wales attack is also a big threat.

“One thing with Wales is that they have a number of options. They can play the direct route through the multiphase off nine and they can also play around the edges,” McKee said. “They also have a good kicking game and will put you under pressure with contestable kicks. That’s something we have to deal with. There’s no one place where you can say the threat is going to come from.”

Fiji’s performance against Georgia’s burly pack showed it has improved its scrummaging from the Uruguay game. But led by the inspirational Alun Wyn Jones at lock, Wales is a different proposition in the set piece.

“The forwards will be a massive fight for us,” Fiji backrower Viliame Mata said. “It was a good fight against Georgia — (now) we have to match Wales.”

Fiji swapped Viliame Mata in at No. 8 for Peceli Yato in the only change to the starting lineup against Georgia, and lock Leone Nakarawa needs one more carry to hold the outright record for Fiji in World Cup history with 105.

Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar — who has 376 points from 75 test matches — has been cleared to play after picking up a head injury against Australia.

Gatland has made only two changes from that game. Ross Moriarty replaces Aaron Wainwright at No. 8 and James Davies makes his World Cup debut at openside flanker instead of Justin Tipuric.

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