Wales will look to end a five-match losing run by beating their 2007 World Cup conquerors Fiji at the Millennium Stadium on Friday.
Wales will look to end a five-match losing run by beating their 2007 World Cup conquerors Fiji at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Friday.
The pain of World Cup elimination will be all the motivation required by Wales when the two countries meet for the first time since their pool clash in Nantes three years ago, where Fiji won a nine-try epic in arguably the 2007 tournament's best game.
That 38-34 win for the South Sea Islanders was enough to dump Wales out of the tournament, leading to the sacking of Gareth Jenkins and the appointment of current incumbent Warren Gatland as the national coach. The defeat saw Wales sink to their lowest ever position in the world rankings – tenth – following a decline that began with five successive defeats between November 2006 and March 2007.
But having resurrected Welsh fortunes, Gatland last week suffered his fifth loss in a row (29-25 to South Africa), and is desperate not to suffer the same fate as his predecessor against opponents he will face at next year's World Cup.
And with the shadow of facing New Zealand looming on the horizon next week, victory is non-negotiable.
While there can be no doubt that Wales have progressed under the New Zealander, Gatland cannot afford to show mercy against the Fijians in the grip of the country's worst run of results for more than three years. And while Fiji have never beaten Wales on their home turf, there's no doubt the visitors will be out to take advantage of Wales' poor run.
Coming off a loss of their own against France, the Fijians will be stronger than they were last week because they will have had an extra week together. The poor weather conditions played a part for Fiji but the 34-12 scoreline flattered France.
Though light rain is expected on Friday, Fiji will once again look to do what they do best and run Wales off their feet. Wales were sucked into playing Fiji's renowned running game in 2007 – and they finished second. While the Welsh are not immune to throwing the ball around themselves, the key to victory will be a power-packed performance from their forwards.
“You can't win international rugby games without a good balance,” said Ryan Jones, who regains the Wales captaincy from a rested Matthew Rees,
“Our set-piece has been good this autumn, and the breakdown is getting better.
“We don't want to get involved in playing 15-a-side sevens.
“We don't want to go out and try to beat Fiji at their own game, we want to go out and play the way we've developed and try to impose ourselves on the game for 80 minutes.”
Six of the Wales players involved that day at Stade de la Beaujoire – James Hook, Tom Shanklin, Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips and Ian Gough – are in this week's matchday 22. However, Wales are minus a handful of injured players for Friday, including Shane Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Andy Powell and Sam Warburton.
But the Fiji Test provides an opportunity for Gatland to assess players like Williams' replacement Aled Brew and fly-half Dan Biggar, while raw talent – Tonga-born Toby Faletau – is on the bench. Dragons back-row forward Faletau turned 20 last Friday, and he is rated among the Magners League's most destructive ball-carriers.
Ones to watch:
For Wales: We've already mentioned the likes of Brew, Biggar and Faletau, but a player itching to prove his worth will be recalled Ospreys hooker Huw Bennett who wins his 37th cap this weekend. Amazingly, the in-form Bennett has only started one game in the past three months and will be determined to show what he can do after playing second fiddle to Matthew Rees for much of his Test career.
For Fiji: Out goes winger Napolioni Nalaga and in comes Michael Tagicakibau – the Saracens flyer that's made a pretty big name for himself on the Aviva Premiership circuit over the last two seasons. Nalaga was our one to watch last week against France, but his costly error against Les Bleus seems to have cost him a place in the side. Tagicakibau, who stands at 1.94m and weighs 94kg, now gets a golden opportunity to weave his magic out wide for his country.
Head to head: Against the likes of Fiji, it has to be in the backs hasn't it? Whilst Wales' back-line should be wary of a side that specialises in the unexpected, Fiji will also need to be on their toes. The likes of Josh Matavesi, Tagicakibau and Vereniki Goneva shouldn't expect a dangerous counter-attacking back three of Lee Byrne, George North and Aled Brew to just ran the ball back to the safety of their forwards. At the same time, we all remember how a cavalier approach cost Wales last time out – but it was still highly entertaining to watch!
2007: Fiji won 38-34 in Nantes (RWC)
2005: Wales won 11-10 in Cardiff
2002: Wales won 58-14 in Cardiff
1995: Wales won 19-15 in Cardiff
1994: Wales won 23-8 in Suva
1986: Wales won 22-15 in Suva
1985: Wales won 40-3 in Cardiff
Prediction: Although Fiji will possibly offer Wales the best chance to return to winning ways, the Welsh will know better than anyone to take anything for granted against the Pacific Islanders. Still, at home, history is with the hosts and should bounce back from last week's heartbreak. Wales to win by twelve points.
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 George North, 13 James Hook, 12 Andrew Bishop, 11 Aled Brew, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Richie Rees,8 Jonathan Thomas, 7 Dan Lydiate, 6 Ryan Jones (c), 5 Deiniol Jones, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Paul James.
Replacements:16 Richard Hibbard, 17 John Yapp, 18 Bradley Davies, 19 Toby Faletau, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Stephen Jones, 22 Tom Shanklin.
Fiji: 15 Josh Matavesi, 14 Michael Tagicakibau, 13 Albert Vulivuli, 12 Gabriele Lovobalavu, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Seremaia BaÃ¯, 9 Nemia Kenatale, 8 Sisa Koyamaibole, 7 Malakai Ravulo, 6 Semisi Saukawa, 5 Jone Qovu, 4 Ifereimi Rawaqa,3 Deacon Manu (c), 2 Viliame Veikoso, 1 Campese Ma'afu.
Replacements: 16 Tuapati Talemaitoga, 17 Graham Dewes, 18 Sekonaia Kalou, 19 Akapusi Qera , 20 Seveci Taka, 21 Ropate Ratu, 22 Taniela Rawaqa.
Date: Friday, November 19
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 19.30 GMT
Referee: JÃ©rÃ´me Garces (France)