By Rob Cole
Do you remember the night terrors that followed Wales’ 2007 Rugby World Cup exit after the defeat by Fiji in Nantes?
Well, could they be ready to return 12 years on? Everyone seems to think that Warren Gatland’s Grand Slammers merely have to beat Australia to win their pool in Japan later this year and progress towards a possible first World Cup final.
Georgia are first up in September before the clash with the Wallabies. Then comes what could be one of the biggest banana skins at the tournament, Fiji.
Wales’ record against South Seas opposition at the global tournament doesn’t make for great reading. In 1991 and 1999 the Samoans beat the men in red in Cardiff, while the Fijians joined the party in 2007 with their stunning 38-34 win in France.
That defeat led to the sacking of Wales head coach Gareth Jenkins after his side failed to reach the knock-out stages and paved the way for Gatland to take over.
The New Zealander has done a remarkable job since then, winning three Grand Slams (one when Rob Howley stood in), taking his 2011 side to the semi-finals of the World Cup, and leading his side to No.2 in the World Rugby rankings this year on the back of a record run of 14 straight wins.
But Gatland will know better than anyone just how dangerous the Fijians can be.
No doubt he will have used the historic 27-10 win over the Maori All Blacks in Suva at the weekend to pep up his players’ training in Switzerland this week.
If a first win over their New Zealand rivals in 62 years wasn’t enough to cause a shock wave through the camp, if they can repeat their triumph over the same opposition in Rotorua on Saturday it might turn the ripple into a breaker.
Two tries from Stade Francais Paris centre Waisea Nayacalevu led the way for coach John McKee’s side in their famous victory. They now face a return clash in Rotorua this weekend.
“It was an excellent start to our campaign. It is always tricky at the start of any campaign, especially having the players coming back from overseas and not having a lot of game time,” McKee told the Fiji Times.
“The way the boys came together and fought really hard for each other and came out victorious was a good start. We are expecting some tough competition in Rotorua and my intention over these first two games is to give everyone who is fit for selection an opportunity to have some game time.”
The victory thrilled a packed crowd at the ANZ Stadium in Suva and earned the side praise from the highest of quarters.
After witnessing the historic triumph in person the country’s Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, added his congratulations in a special Facebook post:
“This win is only the beginning,” said the PM.
“The road to the Rugby World Cup in Japan won’t be easy. It will take hard work on the field, and it will take passionate support from the fans, both at home and overseas. This afternoon, though, we couldn’t have asked for a more inspired performance to kick off that effort.”
The Fijians made the most of a strong wind at their backs by opening the scoring with a try by London Irish full back Alifereti Veitokani.
Next over the Maori line was Edinburgh No.8 Vili Mata and the power of the home side was emphasised by the half-time statistics, which revealed the visitors had missed 21 tackles.
The 12 point interval lead was increased by the first of Nayacalevu’s tries, which the hugely impressive Racing 92 outside centre Ben Volavola converted before adding a penalty.
Two tries to left winger Sean Wainui gave the Māori All Blacks some hope late in the contest, but Fiji proved to be too good and sealed their eighth-straight win in Suva.
Fiji: Alivereti Veitokani; Josua Tuisova, Waisea Nayacalevu, Lepani Botia, Filipo Nakosi; Ben Volavola, Frank Lomani; Peni Ravai, Sam Matavesi, Manasa Saulo, Albert Tuisue, Leone Nakarawa, Dominiko Waqaniburotu, Semi Kunatani, Viliame Mata
Reps: Mesulame Dolokoto, Eroni Mawi, Kalivati Tawake, Api Ratuniyarawa, Nemani Nagusa, Henry Seniloli, Sevanaia Galala, Kini Murimurivalu