Wales 17 Fiji 13: Four talking points
Four talking points as Wales struggle to victory over Fiji at the Millennium Stadium
Horror show blights Wales win
With the Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb show given the afternoon off, it was the turn of the much maligned Rhys Priestland and experienced campaigner Mike Phillips to show what they could do 50 years on from the first time Fiji to the Arms Park.. A spectacle befitting a golden jubilee, it was not. The match was a chance for players to stake claims for a start against the All Blacks next week, but there wasn’t much to impress the Wales coaching staff as they stuttered to a 17-13 win, failing to score in the second half against a side down to 14 men for 28 minutes and coughing up a turnover on average every three and a half minutes. After three consecutive defeats, it was a win, but one with not much to savour. It was easily one of their worst performances for some time: the errors calamitous and plentiful, the leadership non-existent, and well, you get the picture—they have offered far more in defeats to Ireland, England, South Africa and Australia this year. Last week, the boo boys in the crowd targeted Priestland, but their ire was directed at the whole team against Fiji. Whether you agree with their actions or not, there was plenty for them to many of the 61,000 fans at the Millennium Stadium to be disgruntled with when they could have been at home or down the local cheering on South Africa in their win over England. The catch and drive worked well and the tight five barely looked troubled against a typically weak Fijian pack, although hooker Scott Baldwin seemed to lose the ability to throw at one stage. There were also useful carrying contributions from back-rowers Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric, the latter probably wondering what more he has to do to get a regular starting gig in a Wales shirt after another very solid outing. Both made it over the tryline at the start of the second half, but curiously the officials—no surprise the TMO was Italian—conspired not to award what appeared to be certain scores. The individual and group analysis on Monday morning will be brutal – so it should be, especially for that second-half performance. Cue the very public inquiry on social media as a more private inquest happens at the Vale next week.
Flying Fijians kick away chance of victory
Fiji may have plenty of pace and skill in their backline, but they are still a Tier 2 nation in rugby terms, with facilities, finances and personnel that pale in comparison to that available to Wales. Such is their lack of infrastructure, most of their touring squad are based in Europe and others play their club rugby in New Zealand. Even on a bad day, Wales would expect to hammer the Pacific Islanders as they did at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but it didn’t happen this November, as was the case the last time they visited the Millennium Stadium in 2010 – a match which ended in a 16-16 draw. As expected Crusaders’ bruising centre Nemani Nadolo was influential for the Flying Fijians: running in a try off an intercepted pass from Priestland in the second half and banging over eight points off the tee, while Leicester Tigers centre Niki Goneva also enjoyed many a rampage forward. One area where Fiji did excel was getting Wales to turn the ball over, either stripped in contact or otherwise unforced. John McKee and his players can be rightly disappointed that they didn’t secure just a second win over Wales. They were gifted plenty of chances, but clinical finishing let them down too often and, strangely, they kicked the ball away much more than expected from a nation which is built on running the ball. Still, given no hope of a win, they can take a lot of confidence from coming close against a side boasting 560 international caps.
Biggar for No 10
There may still be 10 months to go until the Rugby World Cup, but the Ospreys outside-half has to be Wales’ first-choice 10. Priestland had his chance to make his case against Fiji as he played all 80 minutes and, while it wasn’t the worst performance he has delivered for club or country, he lacked the spark that Biggar brings, missed two of three conversions in the first half, and his confidence can drop off too dramatically when things don’t work out, and doesn’t have the same ability to lead a backline quite as effectively as his Ospreys rival. In a tough pool with England, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay, Wales need a 10 who can march a team around the park for 80 minutes and bark orders. If he can remain fit, Biggar is unquestionably that man. The big problem is who should be his deputy. Priestland, James Hook, Rhys Patchell, maybe Gareth Anscombe, are all contenders. While Wales were toiling in Cardiff, forgotten man Gavin Henson kicked 13 points to give Bath Rugby a win over Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership. There is still a section of Wales supporters who demand he be brought back from the international wilderness, as unlikely as it is. Gloucester man Hook rarely gets a look in these days, and probably needs a run during the Six Nations to be considered, but he brings a maverick style that can make things happen when it matters and would likely join Priestland in the World Cup squad unless Patchell and Anscombe end the Guinness PRO12 season well.
Halfpenny the wingman
The emergence of Liam Williams at full-back has given Gatland a bit of a headache, because Wales need the points that Leigh Halfpenny brings off the kicking tee and you can’t leave him out of the big matches. The Toulon star’s injury problems this year have eased that somewhat, and he was always likely to miss out against Fiji, but against the All Blacks, the Wales head coach needs to overcome his stubbornness with the back three. As good as he has been for Wales and the British and Irish Lions, Halfpenny is, essentially, a reformed winger, and Williams is a better fit at 15 rather than on the wing—he gives everything, solid under the high ball, defensively sound, and can be a devastating counter attacker, as all 15s should be. He just offers more than Halfpenny in those crucial areas and he was the standout player against Fiji, running 224 metres with ball in hand and beating defenders at will. His mistake which cost Wales a win in Nelspruit five months ago is almost forgotten. Halfpenny’s former Cardiff Blues team-mate Alex Cuthbert must be the luckiest man in world rugby, because few would get away with drifting out of games as much and still seem to be an ever present – the problem is there just aren’t many fit international-standard wingers available to Wales, and Cutrhbert has a knack of getting on the end of try-scoring moves. Cuthbert may have scored a try against Fiji taking his haul to 14 in 28 Tests, but if Halfpenny is fit to play next week, as is expected, the back three against the All Blacks has to be Williams at full-back, Halfpenny on the right wing, and George North on the left. It’s time for Gatland to make some big calls.