Mission accomplished as Wales edge out Fiji in nerve-shredding World Cup opener
Forget fingernails, there probably aren’t too many toenails left in Wales after the extraordinary events in Bordeaux last night.
You have to wonder what the nation’s collective blood pressure must have been at around 10pm as the game of the World Cup so far reached its dramatic conclusion.
We’ve all been sweating buckets over the past week amid the heatwave, but perspiration levels would have gone off the scale, both for fans back home and those out in France.
Brows had to be mopped time and again, nerves have been shredded and fingers bitten off to the elbow. But the key thing is the result and, in the end, that went Wales’ way, as they held on for a crucial 32-26 bonus point victory over Fiji.
It looked as though that win was going to slip from their grasp right at the death as the ball reached Semi Radradra out on the left with the line at his mercy.
The Bristol centre is one of the best players in the world and you would have put your mortgage on him finishing from there.
But as the ball bounced up at him off the deck after some 11 frantic phases, he was just unable to hold on to it and that was the game.
The consoling shake of the hand and tap on the head from Liam Williams following the final whistle spoke volumes. It was a recognition and an understanding of just how cruel sport can be at times.
If truth be told, there could be few complaints if Fiji had won the game.
They dominated both territory (65%) and possession (61%), they made 652 metres compared to 378 by Wales and beat no fewer than 34 red-clad defenders, while they had two close range tries ruled out by the narrowest of margins.
They will also be questioning how their opponents avoided a yellow card for so long, given they conceded 17 penalties, a number of them in the shadow of their posts.
Despite the issuing of a final warning by referee Matthew Carley after a series of offences by Wales near their own line, it was actually Fiji who ended up with a player in the bin after a solitary incident in their 22.
To rub salt in the wound, the 14 men immediately conceded a lineout maul try, with replacement hooker Elliot Dee getting the ball down to secure the bonus point and make it 32-14 with just 15 minutes left to play.
That was surely game over and at that point you were reflecting on a job efficiently done by Wales.
They had made the most of their limited attacking opportunities, with an impressive conversion rate in the opposing 22, as Josh Adams, George North and Louis Rees-Zammit also went over.
After turning round with a narrow 18-14 lead, they had taken charge in the third quarter, putting the ball behind the Fijians and asserting some welcome control on proceedings after some madcap moments in the first half which had Dan Biggar losing his rag to put it mildly.
Then there were the key interventions in defence.
Just a few minutes before the Dee score, there had been a vital try-saving hit by the excellent Will Rowlands on Levani Botia which dislodged the ball from the flanker’s grasp just as he surged for the line.
There were a number of other notable moments of heroic scrambling under intense pressure, as the Welsh players dug deep for each other, making more than 250 tackles in all.
But the one that will be remembered above all was by winger Josh Adams on opposite number Selesitino Ravutaumada shortly before the hour mark.
Collecting a kick upfield, Ravutaumada – Man of the Match in the victory over England at Twickenham – countered and got up a furious head of steam as he bore down on Adams.
But the Cardiff winger stood his ground and produced a textbook tackle to knock his man backwards.
Such was the crunching impact, it even removed Ravutaumada’s shorts!
As if that was not enough, Adams immediately sprung to his feet to jackal over the ball and win a relieving penalty.
His celebration was as animated as for any of the 21 tries he has scored for his country, while his team-mates raced in to congratulate him, with the subs rising to their feet off the bench and Welsh fans doing the same in the crowd.
It was a real lift and a big momentum shifter, as fly-half Biggar acknowledged.
“It was a huge moment for us, everything about it. It was technically brilliant. There were lots of big moments for us, but that was right up there. It meant a lot.”
When that was followed by the Lekima Tagitagivalu yellow card for sacking a maul and then by Dee’s bonus point try, it looked as though Wales would be able to cruise home against 14 men.
But the numbers were then levelled up on 68 minutes when replacement prop Corey Domachowski was sin binned for offending at a breakdown.
When centre Josua ‘The Bus’ Tuisova ploughed his way over, it was game on again, with Dragons prop Mesake Doge touching down two minutes from time to set up the grandstand finish and those heart-stopping last few moments after Liam Williams kicked into touch on the full.
A nation held its breath.
Now, with the dust having settled and some kind of calm restored, we can reflect on the positives and the negatives to come out of an epic encounter.
The Welsh set piece went pretty well overall, they pressurised Fiji into 17 turnovers and there was that clinical edge in attack. But, against that, there were those 17 penalties conceded and 34 tackles missed.
Both of those areas will need addressing, while the way they lost control in the last 15 minutes will also be high on the agenda.
Individually, Nick Tompkins had a very effective game with ball in hand, as he caused opposite number Radradra real problems, which is no mean achievement.
He was twice involved in the opening try on six minutes, first sending co-centre George North hurtling through a hole and then showing good feet to make a crucial few yards and set up the ruck that culminated in Adams cutting inside to the line.
Just before the half hour, he was at it again as he drew in two men – including Radradra – and gave the short pass to send North towards the whitewash.
Then, early in the second half, he stepped inside Radradra for the key line break ahead of Rees-Zammit crossing off Jac Morgan’s cross kick.
On the debit side, he did miss tackles and that will be a work on, but he was a big plus in attack.
Prop Gareth Thomas – something of an unsung hero – deserves major mention, as he put in a huge shift. He was solid in the scrum and made 23 tackles during his 70 minutes on the pitch in two spells.
As for Will Rowlands, his 27 tackles is the kind of lock tally we used to see from Luke Charteris back in the day and was some effort.
The Man of the Match award went to Biggar, who brought crucial control when it was needed after the break and wore his heart firmly on his sleeve throughout before having to leave the fray with a back spasm.
Speaking after the game, head coach Warren Gatland explained the context of the occasion: “It would have been Dan’s mother’s birthday today. She passed away a few years ago, so it was pretty emotional for him. I hope she was looking down on him, maybe that’s the case.”
Giving his own take on the game, Biggar said: “It was exhausting. I’m just absolutely drained. The last 10 minutes felt like the clock never moved.
“We always seem to make it hard for ourselves, but we make up for it in effort, courage and determination. That’s just huge with this team.
“We put everything into it. Fiji came strong at the end, but I’m really thrilled for this group of players that we managed to see it through because the work we’ve put in over the past few months has just been incredible. It puts us in such a good position in the group.”
He added: “Tonight was about anything but me. I just wanted it to be special for the team, the Welsh people in the stands here, the people back home, and hopefully it will be special for me in the end.”
Giving his assessment, Gatland said: “We are delighted with the win, but frustrated about that last 15 minutes or so.
“When you are 32-14 up, the game is comfortable. You keep your accuracy, you keep your discipline, you squeeze the opposition and you don’t allow them any opportunities.
“But we just made some dumb decisions in terms of some discipline. We gave away some unnecessary penalties when we were in control of the game, lost a bit of composure and with the individuals Fiji have got, they can hurt you.
“So that’s the disappointing aspect. We will need a thorough review to have a look at that. But the guys put a real shift in and showed great courage. It’s a massive win.
“Fiji probably went into the game as favourites, everyone expected them to win.
“We are team that is still learning and we intend building on that going forward. There will be a lot of learnings from that and I think we will get better as the tournament goes on. That’s exciting.”
Exciting was certainly the word for it last night. Excruciating was another, when it came to the frantic finale.
But the first hurdle has been overcome – a very tricky one at that – and now it’s onwards and upwards, with a few days for those nails to grow back!
Wales’ remaining group matches in Pool C
Saturday, Sept 16: Portugal (Nice, 4.45pm)
Sunday, Sept 24: Australia (Lyon, 8pm)
Saturday, Oct 7: Georgia (Nantes, 2pm)
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