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FEATURE Wales emerge victorious after trial by Fijian fire

Wales emerge victorious after trial by Fijian fire
9 months ago

Being a rugby fan means different things to different people. New Zealanders, for so long, approached every game with a feeling of impregnability. They didn’t want their team to win; they expected them to, no matter how predictable and routine it became. The French want to be entertained. It’s an expression of their national character, their Gallic spirit and their revolutionary zeal. They’re different from the rest. The English are the biggest, richest rugby country on earth, and should win more often than not, but their fans have become accustomed to underachieving. Their old-world status means their supporters are often embarrassed about appearing too patriotic.

The Welsh meanwhile are a nation unto themselves. They approach virtually every game supping from a contradictory cocktail of optimism and doubt. Sunday night in Bordeaux represented Welsh rugby in microcosm. Confidence, brio, flair, insecurity, panic, despair, elation, all wrapped up in a sweaty ball of joy. There was also a huge dollop of sympathy for the Flying Fijians because Welsh fans know exactly what that numbing sense of despondency feels like. For Semi Radradra in 2023, read Leigh Halfpenny in 2011. It’s the hope that kills you. With the dust settled on the opening weekend, I’m in no doubt that Wales v Fiji was the game of the round. While England delivered a controlled masterclass, South Africa cranked their bulldozer into gear, and France brought a nation to raptures, Wales and Fiji combined to put on a bone-fide World Cup classic. The headline act among a bill of a-list stars.

Wales fans
The Welsh fans were vocal and passionate as the carried Wales home in a furnace(Photo by Adam Pretty/ Getty Images)

Eight tries, more than three hundred bone-crunching tackles, line breaks galore, and forty thousand sets of fingernails chewed to their quicks. If Dan Biggar lost 5lb in sixty minutes, the rest of the Welsh nation felt lighter than air when the final whistle blew. Thousands of travelling fans drifted into the still-sweltering Bordeaux night, hymns and arias being bellowed on the buses and trams, even on wobbly bicycles, out of sheer exultation and relief.

From a Welsh perspective the result has changed the entire complexion of the tournament. An opening round loss, which many were predicting, would have plunged them straight into knockout rugby, with another defeat probably being terminal. Now, Warren Gatland has the luxury to fully rotate his squad for Portugal, to give much needed game time to the likes of Gareth Anscombe and Johnny Williams, and to chart a direct collision course with Australia. It’s the scenario the entire Welsh squad had been dreaming of, but no one dared contemplate. In World Cups gone by, Fiji were an opponent to be respected but not feared. This time it was the other way around, and even the most experienced Welsh players knew it was a 50-50 outcome at best.

Was the near-capitulation that followed a result of Welsh inadequacy, or Fijian brilliance? Was it the warrior spirit of a proud nation on the ropes, desperately trying to salvage something amid the wreckage. From my perspective it looked like the latter.

No one likes to analyse a game like the Welsh and now the feeling of elation has been safely banked, the conversations on social media and in the bars of Bordeaux and Nice have turned from the broad strokes of victory to the granular detail of how and why. How did Wales get away with so many penalties without receiving a yellow card? Why did Dan Biggar rip into his teammates? How different would it have been if Semi Radradra had scooped up that final pass? Speak to the Welsh players and they’ll feel slightly aggrieved at this emphasis on the more negative aspects when they’ve just pulled off a victory few expected them to. At 32-14 up with fifteen minutes to play Wales looked comfortable. Was the near-capitulation that followed a result of Welsh inadequacy, or Fijian brilliance? Was it the warrior spirit of a proud nation on the ropes, desperately trying to salvage something amid the wreckage. From my perspective it looked like the latter.

Waisea Nayacalevu
Waisea Nayacalevu powered through the tackle of Aaron Wainwright during the game to serve a notice of intent early on (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Fiji were sensational. The French supporters in the Stade Matmut Atlantique embraced them as their own, loudly cheering their every incursion into Welsh territory. They have some of the most talented, physically intimidating rugby players on the planet, and with momentum on their side they are a joy to watch. They should be given enormous credit for the way they attacked this game, and their two losing bonus points could play a critical role in the way pool C unfolds. A Fijian victory over Australia would stir the pot significantly.

Credit too, belongs to Wales. They made a record 253 tackles in the game, defending heroically throughout, and their red zone efficiency – a weakness in the summer series – was admirable. Their first try, in particular, was a model of accuracy and precision. Generally speaking, they managed to turn pressure into points. Both sides deserve all the plaudits that have come their way.

Fiji
The Fijians players were disconsolate at the final whistle after coming so close to a win (Photo by CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/Getty Images)

I found myself among Welsh fans in Bayonne yesterday evening, enjoying the liquid refreshment of the Basque Country and quizzing each other on their niche knowledge of Welsh rugby. “Starter for ten, then boys” bellowed one, who had more than a passing resemblance to Windsor Davies, “What was the score the last time Wales played Portugal?” The answers ranged from “28-25” to “500-nil” with one wag, who’d been enjoying the local cider, declaring “I can’t even remember the score from last Sunday, butt!”

My advice to Wales fans: relax and enjoy yourselves this week, before the emotional turmoil of the Australia game sends you tumbling into that familiar vortex of giddy anticipation and stomach-churning fear.

The answer, should you be interested, is 102-11. It was a World Cup qualifier in Lisbon in 1994, and Nigel Walker bagged four tries. This Portugal side will offer sterner resistance than that, having reached the World Cup at the expense of the USA, but only the most pessimistic, doubt-ridden, insecure Welsh rugby would predict anything but another handsome win.

My advice to Wales fans: relax and enjoy yourselves this week, before the emotional turmoil of the Australia game sends you tumbling into that familiar vortex of giddy anticipation and stomach-churning fear.

Comments

4 Comments
P
Poe 275 days ago

Other way of understanding the match includes this: Ruining this World Cup’: TV presenter slams ‘grotesque’ refereeing as Wales beat FijiThe refereeing in the Rugby World Cup match between Wales and Fiji has been slammed as “grotesque” and “appalling” by TV presenter Nick Knowles who also claims that the officiating is “ruining the World Cup”.

P
Poe 275 days ago

Oh look at story about Wales that starts with clichéd bs about NZ.

R
Richie 276 days ago

It was an exciting game to watch, however! Wales should have been a man down going on the amount of penalties conceded on their try line, while Fiji conceded half the amount and yet on their try line got a yellow card !! Along with Wales time wasting efforts and Davies Hollywood acting it all taints a good performance.

C
CT 276 days ago

Agreed best match so far

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