CASTRES, FRANCE – Sometimes, even Dylan Thomas can’t cut it, and describing the extent of Wales’s struggles to put down a spirited Fiji in the Rugby World Cup Pool C clash requires help from a poet of another Celtic nation. Fortunately, Robbie Burns is always on hand to give the bard of the valleys a hand.
Three wins from three still may not be enough for Wales, but it’s plenty for France who dug deep to beat a dogged and inspired Canadian side on a day that demonstrated the gap between Tier One and Tier Two really is starting to close
Wales 23 – 13 Fiji
The best-laid plans of Warren Gatland’s men threatened, very seriously, to gang agly in the face of a second-half Fijian onslaught so fierce it made their pre-match Cibi war dance look like a gentle invitation from the vicar to tea and biscuits.
On the off-chance Wales did not realise before Thursday’s match started that Fiji would not go gentle into that good night, they were painfully aware of the fact – and not a little relieved – by the end of the 80 minutes.
Captain Sam Warburton told reporters: “The boys are absolutely spent. You would have thought we’d lost if you looked at the guys now.”
The five-day turnaround between that epic win over England on Saturday and Thursday’s encounter at a closed-roof Millennium Stadium was partly to blame. Warburton, his faithful lieutenant in the pack Alun Wyn Jones, fly-half Dan Biggar and battering-ram centre Jamie Roberts were out on their feet with 15 minutes left on the clock. And Fiji were coming at them time and again.
But, like a champion boxer, Wales hung on – and Dan Biggar landed enough demoralising counter-punches in the closing quarter to, just about, give Wales the win on points.
Ultimately, it may not be enough. Never before has a side failed to reach the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup after winning three Pool matches. It could still happen in Pool A this year, as Wales’s failure to pick up a bonus point here gave England a little extra wriggle room.
A Welsh bonus point would have that England needed to beat Australia on Saturday to realistically stay in the hunt for the quarter-finals. As it is, they will remain in the mix with a draw. It’s not much, but these days rugby matches and tournaments are decided on ‘not much’.
Gatland’s knackered, busted men could not add to the two tries they scored in the opening half hour, when they defied fatigue to race into a 17-6 first-half lead, courtesy of tries from scrum-half Gareth Davies and hooker Scott Baldwin.
The coach knows he has problems as well as bruised bodies to fix in the nine days before Australia – but, for the first time since August, Wales finished a match without having to rule a player out of the World Cup.
Even as Davies touched down under the posts in the seventh minute following a dummy of Matt Dawson proportions, it was clear that not everything was going Wales’s way. Their scrum was creaking ominously. Their driving lineout appeared toothless, and with ball in hand Fiji’s fly-half Ben Volavola and wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma were more elusive than shadows.
But Wales established some semblance of control shortly after the half hour when hooker Baldwin squeezed over for their second try.
Or so it seemed.
Fiji only went and upped the pace in the second half – and Wales started to feel the effects of the England game. The change in Fijian gameplan, from wearing out the forwards to direct all-out attack from deep, pumped lead into heavy, shattered Welsh legs.
Fiji had no Nemani Nadolo to throw at Wales, but his replacement, Tikoirotuma, was no easier to haul down. And he was the architect of an astonishing 60m try eight minutes into the second half. There appeared little danger when he picked up the ball in his own 22, and turned to face an advancing wall of red. But a subtle, sublime change of direction left Gethin Jenkins tackling only his slipstream and suddenly the ball was in the Welsh half. Three passes later, Vereniki Goneva scored in the shadow of the posts. Volavola converted. A penalty soon after brought Fiji to within four points.
Although the Pacific islanders threatened to make mincemeat of the vaunted Welsh defence again and again, indiscipline at crucial moments cost them as they chased tries and glory.
Biggar restored the 10-point cushion with two penalties, taking his tournament tally to 36 points, before hobbling off with cramp and though Davies and Alex Cuthbert came close to sealing the bonus point late on, the win would have to be enough, leaving mathematicians and fans to pontificate endlessly on the permutations still in play.
France 41 – 18 Canada
First Fiji, and then Canada proved conclusively on Thursday, if proof really was still needed, that rugby’s Tier Two nations must have more matches against the cream of Tier One.
Milton Keynes is not noted for its rugby. Random concrete cows and excessive roundabouts, yes. Rugby? no. But more than 28,000 people crammed into stadium:mk (sic) for another thoroughly entertaining Rugby World Cup affair, in which a Tier One nation was given a more-than thorough workout by a Tier Two country.
Twice, bold, brazen Canada – playing their second of three games in 11 days – pulled back to within six points either side of half-time before French strength off the bench and overall fitness told.
A third win, and 14 points from a possible 15, means Les Bleus are the first team to officially qualify for the quarter-finals. They are now preparing for the crucial match against Ireland, where the prize is avoiding New Zealand in the last eight.
But, boy, did the French find themselves in a game in concrete cow country. Three of their five tries were scored by forwards forced to keep it tight. The French are powerful in the brutal arts of rugby. They needed to be, with the result not assured until 13 minutes from time. But what they had hoped was to demonstrate long-forgotten skill in the beautiful parts of game. On the whole, Canada wouldn’t let them.
At first it seemed easy. Freddie ‘Call Me Mercurial’ Michalak again defied his critics with a man-of-the-match performance as he passed Thierry Lacroix’s French record of 124 World Cup points. He was inspired from the first minute to the 68th, when he was replaced by Remi Tales.
It was his mesmerising skill that sent France on their way. Footwork beyond fleet took him past four defenders in the fourth minute before he slipped the ball out of the back of his hand to Wesley Fofana – who he somehow knew would be on his shoulder. The Clermont centre was strong as he held of the attentions of two Canadian defenders to score. To the untrained eye, this looked a lot like ‘French flair’.
When the clock ticked past 30 minutes, France were 17 points ahead. Their scrum had shredded Canada for a penalty, and Guilhem Guirado had the ball in his hands when a brutal driving maul crashed over the Canucks’ line.
But, in the face of this savage and physical French onslaught, and despite losing their captain Tyler Ardron in the first quarter, Canada did not cave. Rather, they rallied. They upped the pace. For a while they ran France ragged, just as they had done Italy.
Immediately after Guirado’s touchdown, Canada were back in it. Ciaran Hearn beat nervy French debutant Remy Grosso to retrieve the restart. Several phases later, the superb DTH van der Merwe stepped his man to become his nation’s top try scorer in the World Cup.
Canada weren’t done. Ardron’s replacement, Nanyak Dala, burst down the left and a couple of phases later hooker/number8 hybrid Aaron Carpenter touched down to make it 17-12.
Nightmares of the only time Canada have beaten France, when he was captain, must have been swimming in the vision of the melting, miserable face of Bleus’ coach Philippe Saint-Andre. But, after Michalak kicked for the corner instead of goal, prop Rabah Slimani restored France’s 12-point lead from another lineout catch-and-drive.
Two Nathan Hirayama penalties pulled Canada back to within six points early in the second half, only for Michalak to reply in kind on the hour.
Canada’s defended heroically as France chased the bonus point, but their resistance could not last. The French mission was accomplished with 13 minutes left when Pascal Pape picked up the ball at the base of a ruck, moved it forward about six inches, and put it down again to score.
And they stretched their lead as Grosso, called up last week as a replacement for Yoann Huget, marked his international debut with a try in the left-hand corner to wrap up proceedings.
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