BORDEAUX, France (AP) — The tryline was right there in front of Semi Radradra. All he needed to do was gather a long pass out to the vacant left wing and Fiji could have pulled off one of the great Rugby World Cup comebacks.
Alas, the center spilled the ball, Wales players heaved a huge sigh of relief and they celebrated a breathless 32-26 win in the latest instalment of the teams' gripping World Cup rivalry on Sunday.
In the game of the tournament so far, Wales struggled to hold off the entertainers from the Pacific Islands, who started explosively and finished like a train at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux.
It was the hour in the middle that cost them dear as Wales just about doused the threat of the dangerous Fijians, even claiming an attacking bonus point for going over for four tries. Josh Adams, the top try-scorer in the 2019 World Cup, got off the mark four years later with the first of them.
“It was absolutely exhausting," Wales flyhalf Dan Biggar said. “The last 10 minutes felt like the clock never moved. We put everything into it. Fiji came strong at the end, but I’m really thrilled for this group of players that we managed to see it through.”
This was the fifth straight World Cup where these two teams have met in the pool stage and Fiji’s only win remains that epic 38-34 in Nantes in 2007, the last time the tournament was staged in France.
This didn’t quite reach those levels, though it wasn’t far off. Fiji produced some spellbinding rugby early on that had Welsh tacklers flapping at thin air as Waisea Nayacalevu and Lekima Tagitagivalu scored classic Fijian tries from deep in the space of four minutes to vault their team into a 14-8 lead by the 17th.
Then came the late drama as a yellow card for each team — Tagitagivalu for Fiji and replacement prop Corey Domachowski for Wales — opened up more space on the field for the fast-finishing Fijians to exploit.
Tries by Josua Tuisova and Mesake Doge, in the 73rd and 78th minutes respectively, left Fiji within a converted try to win and it could have materialized if Radradra hadn’t knocked on the bounce pass and with the line seemingly at his mercy. It would have needed a conversion to win it, but that wound up being academic.
“That last pass, man," Nayacalevu, Fiji's captain, said. “It’s quite hard but we've got to learn from that.”
The pre-tournament hype around the Fijians might well be justified, even if there was a familiar feeling at the final whistle. They might now need to beat Australia in Saint-Etienne next weekend if they are to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
As for the Welsh, just one game in and the semifinalists in 2011 and 2019 already look in good shape to reach the last eight again under Warren Gatland, with Georgia and Portugal the other teams in Pool C.
Gatland was happy with much of this opening assignment, especially the way his players regrouped after being on the end of that early onslaught by an opponent higher in the world ranking. Wales had to make 248 tackles in total, a World Cup record, according to Opta statistics.
“I’m delighted with the win but we made it a hell of a lot harder for ourselves that we needed to,” Gatland said.
“Typical Fiji, they never say die. They get a sniff of something and they want to come back in.”
Biggar's penalty and Adams' seventh-minute try gave Wales a lead that soon disappeared, only for George North to sidestep his way through the center of Fiji's defense to score between the posts and give his team an 18-14 halftime lead.
Winger Louis Rees-Zammit and replacement hooker Elliot Dee, with a score from the back of a rolling maul, had tries either side of a relentless effort from Fiji near the Wales tryline that drew four penalties in a five-minute period but didn't bring a yellow card.
The sin-binnings eventually came and so did the late drama that almost resulted in a famous win for Fiji, which will rue prop Eroni Mawi knocking on when attempting to ground over the line late in the first half and then the match officials ruling out Peni Ravai's 77th-minute try for an adjudged double movement.
“We had our opportunities, we weren’t clinical enough,” Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui said. “We dropped a couple of balls over the try line, a couple of disallowed tries. We had a chance to score at the end with the pass. We had our opportunities, we just didn’t make the most of it.”
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