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Wales need to respect Fiji

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Why history tells us Wales need to treat Fiji with immense respect

In sport, it’s a rite of passage that you wear your ‘I was there’ badge with pride. After all, those fortunate enough to have made it to Tokyo a week last Sunday for the Wales v Australia nail-biter will be dining out on their tension-filled exertions for many-a-year. Yet on the flipside many fans can, correspondingly, speak in pained tones of their brushes with crushing disappointment when the natural order is disrupted and only a stiff drink or a cwtch from a loved one will do.

October 6, 1991 was one such date.

Wales had flickered in the Eighties, with a third-placed finish in the inaugural World Cup, and a triple-crown in 1988, but they were largely dining out on the heroics of the preceding decade where national heroes were largely addressed by a single-moniker, ‘JJ’, ‘JPR, ‘Gareth’, or ‘Gerald’. Even so, entering the old national stadium in Cardiff, the majority of the crowd for Wales’ opening World Cup game against Western Samoa was expected to be a soothing afternoon where friendships could be reprised, pints could be downed and Wales could muscle their way to a hard-fought victory over an opponent they had never succumbed to.

What transpired was carnage.

Western Samoa, inspired by a fresh-faced Pat Lam and the original piano-shifter, Peter Fatialofa, tore into the Welsh with such gusto that there were audible gasps from the gallery. The Welsh players – or victims – were withdrawn one-by-one, heads drooping, in rapid-fire fashion having been dismantled with a series of rib-ticklers. The injured men, Tony Clement, Richie Collins and Phil May looked on in forlornly as Wales slumped to a 22-9 loss.

Shuffling out of the stadium in the aftermath, all one recalls is a funereal procession of grown men shaking their heads and heading for the hostelries of Westgate St, where a wag famously quipped, ‘thank God we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa’.

It was a Pacific Island calling card. They were not to be underestimated, especially at World Cups.

If Wales were to have a rude awakening in 1991, they had no excuse for their next Pacific Island hangover in 1999. Wales were coached by ‘The Great Redeemer’ Graham Henry, and on the back of ten straight wins the principality became known as ‘Cool Cymru’ for a heady summer with the Millennium Stadium opening ahead of the World Cup and Catatonia, the Manic Street Preachers and the Stereophonics dominating the air-waves. Life was good until Lam, Brian ‘the chiropractor’ Lima and Stephen Bachop conspired to edge a topsy-turvy game 38-31 to puncture Welsh belief. Henry’s men limped into the quarter-finals, but they were humbled by the Wallabies, and left proceedings with a sense of what might have been, while Rod McQueen’s men went on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, in the same stadium a fortnight later.

In France in 2007, Wales were pitted against Wednesday’s opponents Fiji for the first time in the tournament’s history. This writer spoke to coach Gareth Jenkins at length before the tournament. He said he had prepared meticulously, with every single day (and hour) accounted for. No stone had been left unturned. Sadly, there was no plan B in place for Fijian broken-field brilliance and in one of the games of the tournament, the carrying of Vilimoni Delesau, thunderous tackling Akapusi Qera and cool head of Nicky Little saw Fiji over the line 38-34. Captain Gareth Thomas, who ‘celebrated’ his final outing by becoming the first Welshman to reach 100 caps, saw Wales ingloriously exiting the tournament. Despite six previous wins on the bounce over Fiji, the shock factor was muted for Welsh fans. They’d been here before yet the ramifications were profound.

As Wales failed to progress to the knock-out stages, a minimum prerequisite set by the powers-that-be, Jenkins, was summarily told his coaching tenure with Wales was over by WRU supremos Roger Lewis and David Pickering, at the gates of the squad’s training complex in the Vale of Glamorgan. Preferring to avoid the waiting press, Jenkins, as proud a Welsh man as you’ll wish to find, slipped off the bus early, and was spirited away incognito to do some soul searching.

Sobering scenes, indeed, but there was a silver lining. Lewis, the oft-maligned Chief Executive made what was undoubtedly the best decision of his divisive nine-year tenure by sweet-talking Warren Gatland into taking over after a successful spell with Wasps. A helicopter ride West along the M4 corridor is said to have clinched his signature when he saw hundreds and hundreds of rugby pitches lining the coast and valleys of South Wales. He saw the untapped potential that lay within.

Twelve years on, as Gatland’s trophy-laden era draws to a close, Wales are an altogether sterner proposition. Well-coached, tactically shrewd and full of brawn and brio, Wales have exited the World Cup only to traditional big beasts of France and South Africa on his watch. Losing by a point, and four points, respectively. Theirs in a hard-worn respect.

Given their previous exploits, there is no doubt Fiji make Wales nervous but they know fate is in their own hands. A win. Any sort of win, will likely set-up a quarter-final rumble with a seemingly out-of-sorts French side. A loss and a nostril-flaring England awaits – it is widely assumed that Wales would prefer to meet Eddie Jones’ men in the final. First though, they have to sidestep the Fijians, who suffered one of 2019’s biggest upsets, losing to Uruguay.

Mathematically, progress to the knockout-stages is a long-shot, but John McKee, a wily Kiwi who goes back decades with Warren Gatland, says his players are using 2007’s seismic result as a motivation. They have the personnel to do it, too. In Semi Redradra, Fiji have one of the most dangerous runners in world rugby and he will be ably assisted by Top 14 stars Josua Tuisova, Leone Nakarawa, Levani Botia and Peceli Yeto. A quartet of players who should come with a public health warning.

The only Welsh survivors of that 2007 game are the totemic Alun Wyn Jones, and Wales attack coach, Stephen Jones, who will be keen to press home how complacency is not an option.

Wales have shown their respect by naming a near full-strength side with only two changes in the backrow. They will be thankful Dan Biggar has been passed fit, knowing sound game-management, a well-organised defence and accuracy off the tee should see Wales finish on the right side of the scoreboard. If they let the game open up, all bets are off.

Oita is known for its volcanic tremors but Wales will hope that the ghosts of 1991, 1999 and 2007 can be expunged, and a new chapter of Pacific Island pain is unwritten.

Strap in for a bumpy ride.

Watch: Warren Gatland on Wales v Fiji

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Why history tells us Wales need to treat Fiji with immense respect