Everything you need to know as Wales prepare to take on Fiji in their World Cup opener
So, the waiting is almost over. Wales will finally begin their World Cup campaign on Sunday night when they take on Fiji in Bordeaux.
The teams are out and both camps have been giving their thoughts ahead of the crucial Pool C clash.
Here’s the full lowdown on the fixture, with everything you need to know in readiness for a nerve-jangling weekend.
The game will be played in the port city of Bordeaux in south west France. Situated on the River Garonne in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, it has a population of just over 250,000 and is known as the wine capital of the world – so not a bad place to visit!
Kick-off is at 9pm local time (8pm here) which will be very welcome given the heat in the area at the moment. Mind you, the temperature will still be up in the high 20s when the game gets underway, so pretty taxing conditions.
The venue is the futuristic Stade de Bordeaux, home to the city’s Ligue 1 football club. Opening its doors in 2015, it staged five matches during the following year’s European Championship, including the opening game for Chris Coleman’s Wales against Slovakia. With a capacity of around 42,000, it has also hosted big rugby matches, notably Top 14 semi-finals.
Wales coach Warren Gatland had said at the start of the week that everyone was fit and available for selection. But, in the end, he opted not to go with co-captain Dewi Lake as he hasn’t had as much training time as the other hookers since picking up a knee injury against England at Twickenham. So it’s Ryan Elias who starts at No 2 to add similarly sized bulk to the scrum, with Elliot Dee – who had a fine warm-up campaign amid his accurate arrows – on the bench.
While Lake is being held back, Taulupe Faletau goes straight in at No 8. He hasn’t played a game of rugby since April and spent the summer in cotton wool as he looked to recover from a calf problem. But he’s taken a full part in training for the last three weeks, with Gatland saying he’s worked incredibly hard and that his GPS figures have been excellent.
So in he comes to win his 101st cap. It could be seen as a little bit of a risk, but it’s also understandable given he is one of few genuine world class players in the squad.
With the return of Faletau, the versatile Aaron Wainwright moves across to the blindside flank to provide both dynamism and a lineout option there, while Adam Beard gets the nod over fit-again youngster Dafydd Jenkins to partner Will Rowlands at lock.
This will be a key department, as the lineout could potentially be one area where Wales could get some joy against the Fijians. It went particularly well versus England in Cardiff and one can safely assume there will be no repeat of the calling experiment that went so badly wrong in the Twickenham rematch.
Turning to the backs, it was always going to be a tight call between the two scrum-halves and Gatland has reverted to the formula he employed at the last World Cup in Japan, with Gareth Davies starting and Tomos Williams straining at the leash.
So Davies will provide the initial physicality and pressurising defence, with Williams then adding tempo and his basketball skills when the game starts to loosen up.
The other position which was seen as a close battle was No 12 and, in the end, it’s Nick Tompkins who has won the vote there over Johnny Williams, whose summer involvement was delayed by injury.
One of the big talking points is there is no centre on the bench, so presumably Josh Adams will step in from the wing should either Tompkins or North have to go off.
Adams has played in midfield before, but not often. If he does have to move there, it will be some test, up against Semi Radradra and Waisea Nayacalevu, as there are few better pairings in world rugby.
It is somewhat surprising that Mason Grady – who can cover both centre and wing – has not been included among the subs.
As a whole, the make-up of the 23 seems to suggest Wales will look to play a pretty controlled game for the first 55 minutes or so, containing the Fijian attacking threat by going for territory with a kick-to-compete aerial strategy and keeping it tight, while defending for their lives when they don’t have the ball, no doubt with a fair bit of scrambling after the almost inevitable line-breaks.
Then in Tomos Williams, Sam Costelow and Rio Dyer, they have the men to switch things up and play more with ball in hand as the game opens up.
The selection of Tommy Reffell as back row cover over the more versatile Taine Basham also points to Wales looking to target the breakdown in the last half hour, as does the inclusion of prop Dillon Lewis to provide another jackaling entrant.
In general, Wales have gone for a really mobile bench. Does that mean they expect the Fijians to tire, as they have done in the past on occasions? It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s worth pointing out the islanders didn’t fall off the pace while beating England at Twickenham.
As for their team selection, well that’s been heavily impacted by the devastating loss of Caleb Muntz who has been ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury.
The 23-year-old Drua fly-half had looked to be the final piece in Fiji’s jigsaw, bringing real control and composure in the pivotal playmaking position over the summer.
Making his Test debut against Tonga in July, he was to play the full 80 minutes in four of their five warm-up games, including the 30-22 victory over England at Twickenham, where he kicked 15 points.
It looked as though Fiji had found the answer at No 10. But now the Kiwi-born Muntz, who qualified through his grandparents, will have to watch the World Cup as a spectator.
In his absence, the 32-year-old Teti Tela, who also plays his rugby for the Drua in Super Rugby, wears No 10 against Wales.
That’s the only change to the side that started against England a fortnight ago, but there are some notable additions to the bench.
Racing 92 threequarter Josua Tuisova is nicknamed ‘Human Bulldozer’ and ‘The Bus’, so you will know what to expect when he enters the fray, while La Rochelle’s Levani Botia – who can uniquely play at both flanker and centre – is another powerful presence to have in reserve, as his moniker of ‘Demolition Man’ indicates.
Wales: Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Gareth Thomas, Ryan Elias, Tomas Francis, Will Rowlands, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Jac Morgan (c), Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Corey Domachowski, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Tomos Williams, Sam Costelow, Rio Dyer.
Fiji: Ilaisa Droasese (Drua); Selesitino Ravutaumada (Drua), Waisea Nayacalevu (Toulon, capt), Semi Radradra (Bristol), Vinaya Habosi (Racing 92); Teti Tela (Drua), Frank Lomani (Drua); Eroni Mawi (Saracens), Sam Matavesi (Northampton), Luke Tagi (Provence Rugby), Isoa Nasilasila (Drua), Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta (Drua), Albert Tuisue (Gloucester), Viliame Mata (Edinburgh), Lekima Tagitagivalu (Pau).
Replacements: Tevita Ikanivere (Drua), Peni Ravai (Queensland Reds), Mesake Doge (Dragons), Temo Mayanavanua (Lyon), Levani Botia (La Rochelle), Simione Kuruvoli (Drua), Josua Tuisova (Racing 92), Sireli Maqala (Bayonne).
Wales have won just two of the eight matches they have played since Warren Gatland returned as head coach at the start of the year – away to Italy in the Six Nations and at home to England last month.
The World Cup warm-up campaign ended in sobering fashion with a 52-16 defeat at the hands of South Africa in Cardiff – the heaviest loss during Gatland’s 133 games in charge of the national team.
But, to provide context, that was a very inexperienced Welsh side – particularly in the backs – with no fewer than ten players with ten or less caps, while the Springboks were close to fully loaded.
Only three players from the starting line-up that day – skipper Jac Morgan, fellow back row Wainwright and lock Rowlands – survive in the side to face Fiji, so it’s a very different XV.
It’s also worth noting there were encouraging signs in the back-to-back games against England, both collectively and individually, with Gatland again showing he can bring about improvements when he has a squad together for an extended period.
By the same measure, Fiji have also benefited from an unusually long preparation time and an extended warm-up programme. That, along with their abundant quality, has born fruit with some excellent results this summer.
They recorded victories away to Japan (35-12) and Samoa (33-19), while also beating Tonga (36-20) at home before giving France a real game out in Nantes. Then came that famous win over England at Twickenham.
This is a very different Fiji to the team we have seen in years gone by. They are fitter, they are more disciplined, they have a stronger scrum and a decent defence. But they still have the physicality, the flair and the handling prowess, making them a huge threat.
If you look at their 23 for this weekend, all of them play top level professional rugby, either in France, England, Australia, Scotland or for the home-based Drua Super Rugby Pacific side. They are the real deal.
Their excellent run of late has propelled them up to seventh in the world rankings, three places above Wales. So, on paper, they should win on Sunday. As for what will happen on grass, only time will tell.
What is certain is this is a huge game and absolutely vital in terms of Wales’ hopes of making the knock-out stages.
What have the coaches said?
Warren Gatland (Wales)
“I thought Fiji were excellent against England at Twickenham. They’re a lot more structured now as a team than they would traditionally have been in the past in terms of their exiting and kicking game. They kicked 27 times at Twickenham which is pretty high for a Fijian side.
“They’ve always had incredibly world class individual athletes who could open up a game, but bringing that organisation and structure makes them more dangerous. In the past, their set-piece has been something that hasn’t been the best. They’ve worked hard on that.
“We know they’re a good side. A lot of their team play in Super Rugby or in France. You’ve got to defend well against them. We know they’ll make a break or an offload, so you’ve got to react quickly. We’ve spoken about discipline and keeping them out of our 22.
“We’ve got to impose our game on them as well. They’ve got some big physical players in their forward pack. There’s no doubt we want to move them around as much as we possibly can. There’s different ways of doing that, whether that’s ball in hand or using a kicking strategy.
“It’s going to be an exciting challenge and one we’re really looking forward to. We’ve worked incredibly hard over the last few months. The boys have been to a few dark places in the training camps in Turkey and Switzerland. Hopefully that builds some resiliency and mental toughness that we’re going to require.”
Simon Raiwalui (Fiji)
“Rugby is a religion in Fiji. Everybody is the coach of Fiji and has an opinion on selection. It’s ingrained in our culture and our people will go to any lengths to watch the games.
“If that means taking the boat to go up to the village or travelling to the city, they will find a way. It is one of the beautiful things about Fiji and how it brings people together.
“We have been working hard on discipline and the physical aspect, but we still want to play like Fijians. We always have talent, but it is about getting the key things right, like fitness, so we could play rugby at a high level.
“We have traditionally been a team that plays in spurts and our priority is to play against the top teams for 80 minutes. A lot of teams will say wait for the 30-minute mark and see Fiji tire or lose discipline. We are trying to eradicate that.
“We have worked hard on our set-piece and we have worked hard on the basics, so we have the foundations to free up our play.
“We have a big history with Wales. We’ve been in each other’s pool a number of times, but the teams change, mindsets change. To the credit of the boys, they have really knuckled down, pushed themselves to put them in a good position against Wales. We’re really looking forward to the occasion, we’ll be ready.”
Fijians to watch out for
You expect something to happen every time the Bristol centre gets the ball and it generally does. Give him space and he will cut you to pieces with his speed, deny him space and he will run over the top of you or sidestep you. And if you do manage to grab hold of him, he will unleash a killer offload. Quite simply, one of the outstanding players in world rugby.
There are few more effective carriers in the game than the Edinburgh No 8. At 6ft 5in and 18st 3lbs, he is some physical specimen and when he’s on song he will just repeatedly cross the gain-line, delivering that all-important go-forward. On top of that, he is another Fijian with a fantastic offloading game. So a real handful.
Man of the Match in the victory over England at Twickenham. He’s only 23 and a relative rookie on the international stage, but what a talent. With Vinaya Habosi, of Racing 92, on the other wing, Fiji pose a real potent threat out wide.
The 20st loosehead prop has had a fine year. He helped Saracens win the Premiership title, starting the final against Sale at Twickenham in May, and has played a key role in shoring up the Fijian scrum, an area which has been a problem in years gone by, but is now one of strength.
The match will be shown live on ITV and S4C, while the BBC will be providing live radio coverage. Former Wales and Lions stars Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Gareth Thomas are among ITV’s punditry team.
Wales to win: 4/9
Fiji to win: 15/8
Odds via Betfair
The other World Cup fixtures this weekend
Friday: France v New Zealand (Stade de France, Paris, 8pm)
Saturday: Italy v Namibia (Saint-Etienne, 12 noon), Ireland v Romania (Bordeaux, 2.30pm), Australia v Georgia (Stade de France, Paris, 5pm), England v Argentina (Marseille, 8pm)
Sunday: Japan v Chile (Toulouse, 12 noon), South Africa v Scotland (Marseille, 4.45pm)
Wales’ other group matches in Pool C
Saturday, Sept 16: Portugal (Nice, 4.45pm)
Sunday, Sept 24: Australia (Lyon, 8pm)
Saturday, Oct 7: Georgia (Nantes, 2pm)
Previous matches between Wales and FijI
September 1964: Wales 28, Fiji 22 (Cardiff)
June 1969: Fiji 11, Wales 31 (Suva)
November 1970: Wales 8, Fiji 0 (Cardiff)
November 1985: Wales 40, Fiji 3 (Cardiff)
May 1986: Fiji 15, Wales 22 (Suva)
June 1994: Fiji 8, Wales 23 (Suva)
November 1995: Wales 19, Fiji 15 (Cardiff)
November 2002: Wales 58, Fiji 14 (Cardiff)
November 2005: Wales 11, Fiji 10 (Cardiff)
September 2007: Wales 34, Fiji 38 (Nantes, World Cup)
November 2010: Wales 16, Fiji 16 (Cardiff)
October 2011: Wales 66, Fiji 0 (Hamilton, NZ, World Cup)
November 2014: Wales 17, Fiji 13 (Cardiff)
October 2015: Wales 23, Fiji 13 (Cardiff, World Cup)
October 2019: Wales 29, Fiji 17 (Oita, World Cup)
November 2021: Wales 38, Fiji 23 (Cardiff)
Wales wins: 11
Fiji wins: 1
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