With the Spain game out of the way, we take a look at the biggest matchup on this tour for the Flying Fijians. With all due respect to the Spanish, they’re not the best yardstick to gauge a team’s form on.
That being said, if Fiji turn up at Cardiff with the same mindset as they did the first half against Los Leones, it’s going to be a long night.
If there’s one side that doesn’t underestimate Fiji, it’s Wales.
What goes around…
It’s a strange rugby world we live in. A Welsh team coached by a former Fijian coach and a Fijian team coached by a Welshman. Both Wayne Pivac and Gareth Baber led Fiji Sevens to 2 of its most iconic victories. Pivac coached the victorious Waisale Serevi led 2005 RWC 7s side and Baber the 2021 Olympic Gold. Pivac also coached the National 15’s side from 2004 until January 2007, leaving prior to the Rugby World Cup citing family commitments.
Many suggested Wales would rest their starters after a gruelling 2 weeks against the All-Blacks and the Springboks. This hasn’t been the case. The Dragons cannot afford another loss and are treating this match as a “must-win” hence the selection of virtually the same forward pack that fronted up last weekend against the World Champions South Africa. It’s a fast, mobile side with 3 opensides selected in their backrow pod that includes captain Ellis Jenkins who was a standout against the Boks.
Josh Adams, the man who you may remember from the Josua Tuisova highlight reels, has been moved in from his usual wing position in to centre. On their bench is 19 year old debutant Christ Tshuinza. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the now Exeter back rower has represented the England U20’s and Wales U20’s since his family migrated to Wales in 2010. He is basically Wales’ Fijian backrower on the bench. Big, athletic and hard to bring down.
On to Fiji
Firstly congratulations to Zuriel Togiatama and Apisai Naqaliva who will make their debuts when they come off the bench for Fiji. Togiatama is a tenacious hooker who brings aggression and physicality to the side. Naqaliva has toiled away in the Top 14 for close to a decade and at 32 will get his first chance at a Fiji 15’s jersey. The powerful Clermont centre will be a hard man to stop and provides great punch late in the game.
New look backrow
Due to Visa issues Leone Nakarawa has not been selected but will return to the side for their final match against Georgia. Baber has gone with a big, powerful backrow pod of Albert Tuisue at blindside, Mesulame Kunavula at his usual openside and Viliame Mata back into the starting number 8 jersey after his impressive performance off the bench last weekend.
This points to an up the middle, bash and barge gameplan that will put the onus on the Dragons pack to slow the Fijians down. The rolling maul will also be heavily used and could bare fruit for Fiji. Wales are typically more open and like to spread the ball around but the threat of being drawn into a loose, open game should see them stay quite conservative early.
“Fiji tend to fall away late in big games. They stay in the match and compete for anywhere up to 60 something minutes. It’s not fitness, it’s big match intensity. ”
The smaller, more agile Welsh back row will look to win the race to the breakdowns so Fiji will have to show much more urgency in this area. There will be more onus on the ball carrier to buy enough time for the cleanout to arrive especially with a back 5 consisting of all big, tall men.
The gameplan against Fiji will be to weather the storm, take the energy from their legs with the set piece and take advantage late in the match. A strategy that worked at the Rugby World Cup and one they will employ given both teams lead-ups.Embed from Getty Images
It will be interesting what method coach Baber approaches this game with. Should Fiji come out all guns blazing then they must take every opportunity to put early scoreboard pressure on. Ben Volavola must bring his kicking boots.
The veteran fly-half may have seemed a little kick happy against Spain but I believe he was planning ahead for this matchup. Kicking into space and looking for touch if the opportunity was there. He will no doubt come under pressure but the ability of Frank Lomani to identify a rushing defense should mean we see a lot less “hospital” passes. Having Mata in the side also gives him an extra runner wide of the ruck to keep the Welsh in two minds.
On the other hand Fiji may keep it tight leaving a lot more gas in the tank for later in the match where guys like Togiatama, Masivesi Dakuwaqa and Naqaliva will bring aggression and impact off the bench with Niko Matawalu to take advantage of their tired legs.
Really wasn’t up to their normal standards against Spain. Missed calls, overthrows and just a step back from what we have come to expect. The frustration was clear to see with both Sam Matavesi and Nakarawa showing their disappointment throughout the match. This will obviously have to improve and although they’re without the experience of Nakarawa, Northampton lock Api Ratuniyarawa steps into the lineout caller role and his club combination with Matavesi should eliminate some of the issues we saw last week with Temo Mayanavanua and Tevita Ratuva starting.
With his debut out of the way, I’m really excited to see what Vilimoni Botitu brings to this game and how the Welsh handle him and Setariki Tuicuvu who was very impressive against Spain.
They bring a different dynamic to the side. A little less power orientated and a lot more skill and playmaking. They won’t have the same openings this time around but they could be the key to unlocking the opposition defense with their “change-of-pace” and offloading which will open up opportunities for our powerful wingers Eroni Sau and Josua Tuisova.
I also like the matchup of skipper Waisea Nayacalevu up against winger-cum-centre Josh Adams who could struggle to contain the much bigger Serua native although Wales have selected a few bigger bodies in Johnny Williams at 12 and Alex Cuthbert on the wing to combat Fiji’s powerful backline.Embed from Getty Images
Where it will be won
Fiji tend to fall away late in big games. They stay in the match and compete for anywhere up to 60 something minutes. It’s not fitness, it’s big match intensity. Wales will be there the last 20 because well they play high intensity test matches year round and 2 in the past fortnight against none other than the top two ranked teams in the world. Next week they play team ranked number 3.
Let’s call it high intensity fitness. Fiji have played four test matches since their last meeting with Wales in 2019. Only two meaningful tests (all respect to Georgia and Spain). They were back in July. Wales more than double that number and before we even get to 2021, in 2020 alone Wales played more tests than Fiji have in the 2 years since.
Not making excuses, we all know the decks are stacked against us but despite that we know this Flying Fijians team has what it takes for victory. How long they can keep this high intensity up will ultimately decide how long they can stay in the match.
Gareth Baber mentioned earlier in the week that this team needs to change it’s mindset from playing to compete with the top sides to playing to beat the big sides.
Baber is big on players and teams expressing themselves and if Fiji can express themselves with a patient, disciplined approach, then I believe the only thing standing in the way of victory is themselves.
Join in the conversation
Like all of you I love watching our boys play and will always back them against all comers. I try not to be too critical because there’s enough of that going around but I tried not to sit on the fence too much and took a more honest approach in my review/preview in this article. Let me know in the comments below what you thought of this post and what you think of the matchup against Wales.