Martyn Williams of Wales breaks away to score against Fiji. Pic: Getty Images.

The Day Wales World Cup Fans Went To France . . . Just As Their Team Were Landing In Cardiff

By Gareth James

Martyn Williams insists his infamous flatlining failure against Fiji 16 years ago will not be repeated when Wales begin their World Cup campaign.

It will be the same opponents in the same nation when Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake’s co-captained squad start their Pool C campaign next week in Bordeaux.

But Williams – now Wales’ team manager – is confident there will be a different outcome to the shock 38-34 defeat of 2007 that literally left him not knowing if he was coming or going.

“I remember landing back at Cardiff Airport after that defeat to Fiji and it was full of Welsh fans getting on planes, flying to Marseille, because they were expecting us to be in the quarter finals,” says the flanker who won exactly 100 caps.

“The game against Fiji was one of the lowest moments in my career.

“As a spectacle, that game was brilliant for the neutral fans. If you wanted to get someone into rugby, then that was the sort of game you would have wanted to show them. It was a hell of a game.

“But that was my last World Cup match and it was a brutal way to end.”

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It got more brutal for Wales coach Gareth Jenkins, who hadn’t even digested his breakfast the next morning, when he was sacked in the hotel car park.

Warren Gatland was appointed, the coach who is still in charge now – although he did head back to New Zealand between the 2019 tournament and this one.

Williams insists this is a different era, a different tournament, and a different Fiji.

Too right, they are. This lot are much better.

The South Seas Islanders are rated a highest-ever seventh in the world rankings – three places above Wales – following their stunning 30-22 victory over England at Twickenham last week.

Williams admits: “You only have to look at their squad to see how many good players they’ve got.

“Most of them are playing in the Top 14 in France – and in teams in the top half of that tournament.

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“But what happened then will have no bearing on what happens in France this time. It is a completely different group of players and circumstances.”

Gatland is hoping a better comparison is with the 2011 tournament, when he took a young, unfancied squad – just like now – all the way to the semi-finals where they were unlucky to lose to France after playing most of the match with 14 men after Sam Warburton was sent off.

The build-up has been unconvincing – a terrible Six Nations campaign followed by a solitary victory over England that fooled no-one, least of all the Fijians.

But if Wales’ new breed of Louis Rees-Zammit, Mason Grady and Jac Morgan can be unleased, then there may still be hope for Wales fans.

Williams says: “The Six Nations was tough -the hardest one I’ve ever been involved with as a player or manager because of what was going on around it.

“But that’s all been parked – and we’ll be ready.”

Former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards believes Wales are one of eight teams who could win the tournament – thanks to the increased use of red and yellow cards.

“Any of the top eight teams can win this World Cup, particularly now, because yellow and red cards can have such a major impact,” the France assistant coach told the Daily Mail.

“It’s a massive factor. They are taking over the game. I really feel for the players at times. It is hard for them, when someone drops their head very late and goes into contact.”

Edwards will be taking every step with his players to avoid that fate as they seek to navigate through a difficult draw.

France open their World Cup campaign against New Zealand and will then face either South Africa, Ireland or Scotland if they get through to the quarter-finals.

“New Zealand had been in really good form, but South Africa have really hit a peak now that they are putting their first team out for most of their games,” he said.

“Our most important pool game is not New Zealand, it’s against Italy. It’s absolutely vital that we beat Italy. Then in the quarter-finals it’s going to be South Africa, Scotland or Ireland. One of those three outstanding teams. It’s impossible to pick who we would prefer to play.

“The Springboks are the world champions and they are really hitting form. Everyone talks about their power game and that’s very obvious – how good they are in scrums, lineouts, mauls, and powering over the advantage line in defence and attack.

“But they can also strike from distance and they’ve got such speed on their edges. If they get turn-over ball or a badly-chased kick, they have the gas to go 60-70 metres. They have a lot of young backs coming through who look outstanding.”

 

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