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Wales 34 Fiji 38: Dewes' punishment of Welsh frailties earns islanders victory in true classic

By Hugh Godwin

It is cruel and regrettable that Gareth Jenkins' sacking as Wales' head coach should steal the headlines from one of the World Cup's greatest matches. The 25,000 or so Welsh supporters in Nantes on Saturday did not know whether to laugh or cry and ended up doing a bit of both.

Fiji's joyous progress as the Pool B runners-up to a second quarter-final 20 years after their first was reward for their traditionally adventurous approach being combined with enough hard labour to complete the job.

Arguably the principal factor in a see-saw match of five Welsh tries to four by the self-styled "flying Fijians" was not the difference between two teams from opposite sides of the globe and diametrically different rugby heritages, but their similarities. Both exploited turnovers and loose ball with devastating and thrilling attacks to create sumptuous tries. Both possessed the inner will to fight back from being behind – Fiji led 25-3 after 25 minutes; Wales rallied to be 29-25 and 34-31 ahead during the second half – yet also the frailty to let their opponents take the initiative. At the final whistle it was Wales' captain, Gareth Thomas, giving the valedictory speech to his stunned team. Wales were out at the pool stage for the third time after suffering the same fate in 1991 and 1995.

"We couldn't keep hold of the ball for reasons I can't put my finger on until we do the analysis," said Thomas, who has probably played his last Test, and for once you sympathised rather than wondered at a ducking of the question. Wales knew, of course, that Fiji would run hard and tackle harder. Alix Popham and Colin Charvis were isolated Welshmen who appreciated that they could tackle tough too. Popham scored a try at the base of a pushover scrum after 33 minutes, which began the process of eating into a Fijian lead built upon three lavish tries by Akapusi Qera, Vilimoni Delasau and Kele Leawere. It ought to have been the cue for the Welsh forwards to play it tight but, whether through a lack of maturity or perhaps poor coaching, they failed to do so.

Instead it was the "Welsh Way" – adopted, but certainly not invented, by Jenkins – which brought three Wales tries in six minutes early in the second half, two of them while Qera was in the sin bin for kneeing Stephen Jones on the fringe of a maul. Swift and accurate passing into space brought scores for Shane Williams, Gareth Thomas – his 40th Test try on his 100th appearance – and Mark Jones. With a couple of conversions by Stephen Jones they led by four points.

But Fiji had a handy seven out of nine kicking contribution from their fly-half, Nicky Little – who would wind up with a knee ligament injury that has ended his World Cup – and with two penalties they were ahead again, 31-29.

There was not a single Fijian newspaper reporter there to see it but the team's coach, Ilie Tabua, said the people at home in the tiny Pacific nation would have "climbed over mountains to get to a TV to watch this match". A new Everest loomed when Martyn Williams ran 70 metres for a Welsh interception try after 72 minutes; the flanker should probably have dotted down nearer the posts. Stephen Jones' conversion hit a post – between him and and James Hook there were four missed kicks.

When the dashing Delasau hurtled toward the Welsh line in the 77th minute, the tackle from Martyn Williams which held the wing up was a classic in its own right. But the ball popped up, Graham Dewes, Fiji's loose-head prop, nudged it over the whitewash and with a thumbs-up from the television match official, Wales were out.

"To achieve our goal is an amazing feeling," said Tabua. "We have always had political problems, but rugby unites our nation."

The Welsh are riven anew but they have the consolation of the thanks of the watching world.

Wales: G Thomas (Cardiff Blues, capt); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), C Horsman (Worcester), A-W Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), C Charvis (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets). Replacements: T R Thomas (Cardiff Blues) for Rees, 45; M Phillips (Ospreys) for Peel, 57; D Jones (Ospreys) for Horsman, 65; I Gough (Ospreys) for Evans, 65; M Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons) for Popham, 65.

Fiji: K Ratuvou (Saracens); V Delasau (Clermont-Auvergne), S Rabeni (Leicester), S Bai (Clermont-Auvergne), I Neivua (Nadroga); N Little (Padova), M Rauluni (Saracens, capt); G Dewes (Auckland Marist), S Koto (Suva), J Railomo (Piteia), K Leawere (Hino Motors), I Rawaqa (World Fighting Bull), S Naevo (NEC Green Rockets), A Qera (Gloucester), S Koyamaibole (Padova). Replacements: S Bobo (Metro-Racing) for Neivua, 52; H Qiodravu (RC Orléans) for Railomo, 54; N Ligairi (Brive) for Rabeni, 66; A Ratuva (Nadroga) for Qera, 73; V Sauturaga (Naitasiri) for Koto, 77; J Daunivucu (Tarbes) for Little, 80.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia)

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