Rugby World Cup 2019: Wales look to avoid high-octane chaos 12 years after Fiji upset sparked new era

Sam Peters
Gatland watches on during Wales training: AFP via Getty

It is 12 long years since Graham Dewes bundled over from close range to bring Wales’ already faltering World Cup hopes crashing down as Fiji recorded the nation’s greatest triumph in the 15-a-side code.

Twelve long years since the penny began to drop for Wales, their top internationals stopped playing at professionalism in order to compete at the highest level, twelve years since the Warren Gatland era began.

That era may be drawing to a close, with Gatland handing over the reins to Wayne Pivac after this tournament, but in many ways that historic defeat in Nantes still resonates with both sets of players. Fiji coach John McKee has said as much in the build-up to Wednesday’s Pool D encounter.

It may have been James Davies, the recalled openside flanker, who quipped Gatland had “finally seen the light” when told of his selection for a game Wales need to win to guarantee qualification for the last eight after three games, but it was Fiji who delivered the collective wake up call to his countrymen all those years ago.

Gatland’s era, overseen by influential defence coach Shaun Edwards and medical director Prav Mathema, has seen a professional regime established which empowers players while eradicating a drinking culture which had seen Wales lag badly behind their rivals following the onset of professionalism in 1995.

That poisonous culture, laid bare in that defeat in Nantes, accounted for Gareth Jenkins as coach and paved the way for Gatland to begin building from the ruins of humiliation.

Gradually, success has come, forged around Edwards feverish pursuit of defensive structure and excellence, as well as a conditioning team, led by Mathema that has seen Wales players reach performance levels which would not even have been dreamed of under previous regimes, let alone sustained.

In the space of 12 years, under Gatland, Welsh rugby has grown up.

With Fiji still reeling from back-to-back opening defeats to Australia and Uruguay, losses only slightly softened by a vastly improved display when they beat Georgia last week, Wednesday’s Pool D encounter still counts for more than just pride. Victory would see McKee’s men guarantee qualification for the next World Cup in four years time.

Wales prepare for Fiji (AP)

But for all the intent, passion and power Fiji will bring to the game, unbeaten Wales are surely too savvy to fall into the same trap Jenkins team fell into 12 years ago when they attempted to play the south sea islanders at their own, expansive game.

This Welsh outfit, under Gatland, have too much nous for that and the Six Nations champions will, first and foremost, look to squeeze the life out of their opponents before going looking for the jugular. Gatland said last season his team had “forgotten how to lose” but more importantly they’ve worked out how to win.

The last three World Cup encounters between these teams have averaged 58 points a match but expect Wales to take an altogether more conservative approach to this game to avoid a repeat of the high-octane chaos they found themselves engulfed by 12 years ago.

Their totemic captain Alun Wyn Jones, whose light shows no sign of dimming despite the passing years, will lead the way in a Welsh pack showing two changes to the one which accounted for Australia.

Openside Justin Tipuric, one of the players of the tournament so far, is rested with Scarlets effervescent No7 Davies replacing him while Josh Navidi shifts to blindside flanker and No8 Ross Moriarty replaces Aaron Wainwright. For a nation blessed with extraordinary depth in the back row, the changes should not weaken the Welsh pack one jot.

Gatland watches on during Wales training (AFP via Getty)

With Wales fly half Dan Biggar apparently recovered from the head injury he sustained against the Wallabies, Rhys Patchell has to settle for a place on the bench despite a near faultless second half contribution against Australia.

But it speaks volumes for the quality Wales possess to have players of Patchell’s quality on the bench alongside the likes of Wainwright, Tomos Williams and Aaron Shingler.

It is inconceivable Wales won’t record their third successive victory, and with it progress to the quarter finals but with Japan and Uruguay both recording shocks no-one saw coming before this tournament, nothing can be taken for granted.

But this is a mature Welsh team founded on Gatland’s core principles of discipline and collective responsibility.

In the space of 12 years, Welsh rugby has grown up. There can be no repeat of Nantes, can there?