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Familiar foes: five talking points as Wales start their World Cup campaign against Fiji on Sunday

09 Sep 2023 4 minute read
Taulupe Faletau returns from injury for the World Cup opener. Photo David Davies PA Images

Andrew Baldock

Wales kick off their Rugby World Cup campaign on Sunday when they tackle Pool C opponents Fiji in Bordeaux.

It will be a fifth successive World Cup at which the teams meet, with Wales having reeled off three successive wins since suffering a tournament-ending defeat by Fiji 16 years ago.

Familiar World Cup foes

Wales and Fiji will look to launch their campaigns with a momentum-generating victory. Since beating Wales in 2007 – a 38-34 success that meant a pool-stage exit for their opponents – Fiji have suffered three successive World Cup defeats.

Wales triumphed 66-0 at the 2011 World Cup, and although the two latest meetings were much closer contests, Warren Gatland’s team found a way to cross the finishing line.

Fiji are fresh from humbling England at Twickenham, while Wales have won only two Tests this year, setting up an encounter that should be full of twists and turns.

Hundred-club key for Wales

The saying goes that you cannot buy experience, and such a commodity could prove priceless for Wales in the heat of Sunday’s battle.

It will be an occasion for cool heads and calm decision-making, so it should come as no surprise if the likes of George North, Dan Biggar and Taulupe Faletau make significant contributions. The cap centurions boast 323 Wales international appearances between them, with North among an elite band to feature in four World Cups.

It is Biggar’s swansong before he retires from international rugby, and number eight Faletau is back from an injury lay-off. They could hold the keys to victory.

Warren Gatland’s pledge

Wales boss Warren Gatland probably surprised many rugby followers when he claimed ahead of the World Cup warm-up Tests: “I am telling you this team will do something pretty special (in France). I promise you now, we will surprise some people.”

Gatland is eight Tests into his second spell as head coach – Wales have lost six of those games – while headlines earlier this year were dominated by financial issues in Welsh professional rugby and player contractual problems that almost led to a full-blown strike.

Gatland, though, thrives amid adversity, and he has arrived at his fourth World Cup as Wales boss with a rejuvenated squad fit and firing following an intense build-up. Watch this space.

Memories of 2011

There is an undoubted symmetry between the Wales World Cup squad that went to New Zealand in 2011 and the current crop of players. For 22-year-old skipper Sam Warburton, read current co-captains Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake – aged 23 and 24, respectively – while the new brigade this time around includes prospects like Sam Costelow, Rio Dyer and Mason Grady.

Twelve years ago, Ken Owens was at the start of his Test career, Faletau only had three caps and North just eight. Wales reached the semi-finals in that tournament – their best World Cup performance for 24 years – bowing out to France, and the same adventure of youth accompanies them this time, combined with vast experience offered by seven players with 70 caps or more.

The Fiji magic men

Fiji’s set-piece game has undoubtedly improved under head coach Simon Raiwalui, but it is still an ability to cut teams apart through razor-sharp running angles and raw physical power that makes them such a threat.

Players like Semi Radradra and Viliami Mata can cause havoc with ridiculous ease, and there is no doubt that Wales could have their hands full defensively.

If Gatland’s team get on the front foot early, then they can boss the game tactically, yet that is far easier said than done against opponents who will fancy their chances of progressing from a pool that also includes Australia, Georgia and Portugal.

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