Wales came close to suffering another shock defeat at the hands of Fiji on Friday night with the hosts eventually escaping with a 16-16 draw after a dismal display at the Millennium Stadium.
A penalty from fly-half Seremaia Bai with the last kick of the game gave the brave tourists a share of the spoils after a keenly-fought but error-strewn match. Fiji dumped Wales out of the last Rugby World Cup and looked on course for another famous victory after battling to a 13-6 half-time lead thanks largely to a try from centre Albert Vulivuli. But Wales fought their way back into the contest after the break and a penalty try and the boot of replacement fly-half Stephen Jones appeared to have rescued the result only for Bai to claim due reward for his side.
Wales entered the game looking to erase the memory of their painful World Cup exit three years ago but in the end only narrowly escaped another embarrassing defeat. Such was the lacklustre nature of his side’s performance, Wales coach Warren Gatland was forced to introduce some of his big names off the bench early in the second half but even then the hosts struggled to make their dominance pay due to Fiji’s refusal to buckle. As a result the performance will have provided more questions than answers for Gatland ahead of their high-profile showdown with New Zealand next weekend.
Fiji announced their intentions early by giving the ball some air and their strong start was rewarded with the first penalty of the game but Bai’s long range effort hit the post before bouncing clear. Back came Wales and their first visit to their rivals’ 22 resulted in the opening score of the game – a penalty from fly-half Dan Biggar after Fijian skipper Deacon Manu had strayed offside.
That score appeared to steady the home side’s early nerves but they were guilty of going wide a little too early at times with the Fijian defence up to the task. And they continued to test their hosts with the ball in hand, with an obstruction offence allowing Bai to level the scores on the quarter hour. But they were not on level terms for long with a spear tackle from Bai on Wales winger Aled Brew resulting in a yellow card for the Fijian playmaker and Biggar’s second penalty of the night.
Wales looked to capitalise on their numerical advantage but their discipline and composure failed them in the process, with centre Andrew Bishop guilty of not releasing after the tackle and fullback Josh Matavesi pulled his side level from the kicking tee.
The error count continued to trouble Wales and blight the game as a spectacle while there was little let-up in Fiji’s physical approach with a thumping tackle from lock Ifereimi Rawaqa on Wales’ George North arguably lucky to escape censure. And it took another great tackle from centre Gabirieli Lovobalavu – this time more textbook – to deny the winger a score moments later.
Bai returned having seen his side outscore their hosts in his absence was soon involved in the first try of the game. Yet another error – this time from scrum-half Richie Rees, who failed to claim the ball off a lineout – caused the damage with Fiji No.8 Sisa Koyamaibole pouncing on the loose ball before driving deep into the Wales 22. The ball was recycled by scrum-half Nemia Kentale and Bai fed Vulivuli at pace and the Racing Metro centre showed great strength to power through some poor defence for the score that was eventually confirmed by the Television Match Offical.
Fiji winger Vereniki Goneva almost conjured what would have been a costly interception for Wales as the half drew to a close and when Biggar missed a long-range penalty with the last act of the opening period, the sides headed to the tunnel with the tourists holding a well-deserved lead.
Fiji looked to hammer home their advantage after the break and their trademark physicality continued to cause problems for Wales but their eagerness to make an impression proved their downfall on more than one occasion. However, a lack of precision also blunted Wales’ best efforts with Gatland wasting no time in ringing the changes. Fly-half Stephen Jones, scrum-half Mike Phillips, centre Tom Shanklin and lock Bradley Davies all entered the fray off the replacements bench.
The result was increased intensity in defence and greater conviction in attack and with Fiji beginning to fall off tackles opportunities came. Quick ball inside the Fiji 22 found its way to fullback Lee Byrne, who attempted to force his way over but he was denied by a superb tackle from Vulivuli, whose defensive excellence was confirmed by the TMO.
Welsh pressure at the resulting scrum forced a succession of resets and multiple penalties against the visitors and the inevitable penalty try came when referee Jerome Garces ran out of patience. Stephen Jones then slotted the simple conversion to level the scores as the game entered the final quarter and he gave his side the lead shortly after with his first penalty following another dangerous tackle.
Wales’ James Hook conjured a great turnover on halfway before laying the platform for the next attack but elementary errors returned to halt their progress. Stephen Jones and North then combined well to cut Fiji open with a forward pass bringing an end to what was another promising move.
To their credit, Fiji’s work rate in defence was exemplary and they rallied as the game drew to a close to end the match on the front foot. Wales’ failure to put the game to bed saw them penalised on halfway and Fiji subsequently marched downfield with their forwards edging nearer and nearer the Welsh line in search of another famous victory.
The pressure finally told on Wales, with captain Ryan Jones the guilty party after being lured offside. And up stepped Bai to set the seal on another great day for Fijian rugby with the last kick of the game.Tweet