Fiji stun Wales

29th Sep 2007, 20:17


On their way: The first of Fiji's tries

On their way: The first of Fiji's tries

Fiji have made it through to the World Cup quarter-finals after an extraordinary 38-34 win over Wales in Nantes on Saturday.

Fiji have made it through to the World Cup quarter-finals after an extraordinary 38-34 win over Wales in Nantes on Saturday.

Forget Argentina's win over France earlier this month. Forget, too, Samoa's victory over Wales in the 1991 edition of this tournament - and the repeat performance in 1999. Forget even France's comeback in the semi-final of 1999. This game will go down as the greatest World Cup upset ever. It was a classic - sporting theatre at its very best.

As the Fijians whooped and wailed and prayed and sang at the final whistle sounded, the Welsh - to a man - stood motionless as the terrible truth sank in. The side that claimed the Grand Slam in 2005 has taken the earliest exit possible from the World Cup.

Wales captain Gareth Thomas finally managed to muster a few words in the wake of defeat, likening the whole Welsh campaign to "a roller-coaster ride". He's not wrong.

Indeed, this game was a helter-skelter in itself. The South Sea islanders found themselves 25-3 in front before the break. Fine work from Wales saw them steal back a 34-31 lead late in the game, and it looked as if Fijian fires had been doused.

But they summoned up the strength from the very depths of their souls and launched one final do-or-die raid that bore a try - confirmed by video replay - for prop Graham Dewes.

But the game showed no signs of greatness in its early youth. Indeed, it looked like it would be another case of ruthless efficiency and professionalism subduing heart and passion.

But this time there was just too much heart - and too much passion!

The 'minnows' - can we now please dispense with that term? - have finally sunk their teeth into something substantial.

It was Stephen Jones who opened the scoring with a penalty for Wales in the early exchanges.

The reds then pushed on, carrying out their gameplan methodically and carefully - territory, set-piece, territory, set-piece - like well-drilled boy scouts.

Another penalty was soon directed at the uprights, but Jones's kick rebound off the post.

The miss seemed to trigger something in Fijian heads. It was like an alarm clock going off - a sudden realisation that there was a match to play - and they bounced out of bed eager to devour the Welsh for breakfast.

Suddenly the big hits started to rain in, each heavier and more ruthless than the last.

The slight frame of James Hook was never going to hold up to the barrage and he duly turned over possession whilst under pressure from the outstanding Seru Rabeni.

Isoa Neivua took the ball up to the Welsh lines where it was recycled for the on-rushing Akapusi Qera, who crashed through two weak challenges before sliding in for the first try of the game.

The try added a couple of inches to each of the islanders, and Wales were soon stung again by an attack born in the depths of their own half.

Rabeni was again at the heart of it as he broke down the right before offloading to Vilimoni Delasau.

The Clermont wing, short on space down the right, chipped in-field and then beat both Mark Jones and Gareth Thomas with a leap fit for a salmon to regather in the in-goal area and touch down for Fiji's second try.

What had happened to the script? Fiji were insatiable and unstoppable and Wales's fragile confidence looked shattered.

Nicky Little then landed a second long-range penalty as Wales were once again penalised for not rolling away.

Qera, already a sporting icon back home, enhanced his growing reputation further by then breaking through midfield to once again leave Wales on the rack.

The Gloucester man twice linked with Seremai Bai, and Wales could not halt the Fijian charge as lock Kele Leawere crashed over for their third try and Little's conversion opened up a 25-3 lead for Fiji.

Wales trailed by the same scoreline at half-time against Australia a fortnight ago - they went on to loss that game soundly. What was going through their heads?

Credit to them, then, that they steadied the ship by sucking the ball in tight. Wales's scrum was vastly superior to Fiji's rough construction, and a push-over try to Alix Popham soon had the Welsh fans peeking out from behind their seats.

Fiji then lost Qera to the sin-bin at the stoke of half-time. The flank was adjudged to have raised his knee as Stephen Jones closed in on a ruck, but it could be that he paid the price for several earlier incidences of somewhat rambunctious defence from the islanders.

But Hook failed to find the sticks with the ensuing penalty and the Welsh slunk into the bowels of Stade de la Beaujoire to chew on their predicament - 25-10 down to one of the 'lesser' nations and staring an early return home in the face.

Quite what happened under the stands is still unclear, but an untrained eye would have assumed that the teams simply exchanged kit during the break.

Wales, for reasons that may escape even them, eschewed their clear set-piece advantage and decided to take Fiji on at their own game.

The ploy clearly foxed the islanders. How could their own skills be used against them - and to such great effect?

Beautiful hands and vision lead to tries for Shane Williams, Gareth Thomas and Mark Jones.

And so for twenty glorious minutes Wales fans were allowed to dream, to mention the 1970s and their gods of the beautiful game.

And then they simply sat back.

Why? Who knows? The Fijians were flagging with their tongues hanging out, but Wales refused to run away over the horizon, preferring to jog slowly and let Fiji regain their breath.

Even the arrival of a fresh Welsh battalion of professional brutes from off the bench failed to stamp their authority on the shattered islanders.

In fact, Wales conspired to actually cough up the lead by conceding three kickable - and duly kicked - penalties.

Like so often before - and perhaps now never again - it was left to Martyn Williams to save Welsh bacon, and the irrepressible flank picked off Little's pass to score an intercept-try and steal back the lead.

But the final act of an engrossing drama was still to come as Dewes burrowed over in the corner.

And with that Fiji picked up their first win in nine games against Wales and advance to their first quarter-final since 1987.

Wales head home to face the music - and it will be deafening.