Wales left painfully exposed
November 19, 2010
Wales' Ryan Jones reflects on his side's draw with Fiji at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
Far from erasing their shock exit from Rugby World Cup 2007 at the hands of Fiji - this game served as a reminder of the frailties that linger within the Welsh game and that a lack of genuine strength in depth continues to hinder their progress.
The hosts came painfully close to another highly embarrassing reverse at the hands of the Flying Fijians who would have been fully deserving of the win had they upset the odds due to their unrelenting efforts. But as credit-worthy their performance was it is Wales' shortcomings that will dominate the headlines.
As a warm-up for their biggest test of the autumn against the No.1 ranked New Zealand it could not have gone much worse. But in the same way that Fiji may celebrate a draw as if it were a victory, this result will resonate as far and wide as that dark day in Nantes. Six Tests without a win is bad enough but the performance is the real concern with their tactical and mental fragility suggesting they are in for a torrid time against the All Blacks who on this form have nothing to fear from the Welsh.
Wales lacked conviction for much of the contest and were all too easily bullied by a Fijian side that delivered their trademark punch in terms of physicality. That should have been no surprise to the hosts but you could have been thinking that Fiji were an unknown quantity going by Wales' failure to weather that storm and meet fire with fire. One crunching tackle in response to a Fijian onslaught may have been enough to change the course of the first half but it never came.
The home side, featuring nine changes from the side that pushed the Springboks so close last weekend, were guilty of trying to force proceedings early on with individuals seemingly determined to impress in what for some was an audition ahead of the All Blacks clash. And when they weren't looking for the adventurous route they were sitting too deep or gifting territory and possession in the loose or at the lineout - with one wild pass from the usually reliable prop Adam Jones summing up his side's woes.
All the talk before the game was about not being drawn into a broken game that Fiji thrive on but that message obviously didn't hit home and it took what was surely a strongly-worded reminder from coach Warren Gatland at half-time to remedy the situation. But even then it needed the fresh impetus provided by replacements - fly-half Stephen Jones, scrum-half Mike Phillips, centre Tom Shanklin and lock Bradley Davies - to spark Wales into life and offer some much needed support to the industry of openside Dan Lydiate and vision of centre James Hook.
Wales began to look a little more like the force they are supposed to be but they could not find the continuity or cutting edge that would have ended Fiji's brave challenge. And maybe just as well because a home win would have been a little harsh on a Fiji side fully deserving of a share of the spoils. But the fact that they were able to snatch a draw reflects particularly badly on Wales captain Ryan Jones who not only failed to get his side over the line in the dying moments of the game but coughed up the final penalty that enabled Fiji to snatch a draw.
The game as a whole may have been an ugly spectacle - with the scrum a particular eyesore - but sport remains a results-driven business and Fiji cannot be faulted for their application. Centre Albert Vulivuli grabbed a try to cap a superb personal display with the strong-running of No.8 Sisa Koyamaibole also worthy of note.
As good as they are with limited preparation you wonder what Fiji could do if granted the same kind of luxuries afforded their Tier 1 rivals. The two sides are slated to meet again during next year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand by which time Fiji may well be a more polished force. A thought perhaps not worth dwelling on if you are a Welsh fan or Warren Gatland but the daunting prospect of his under-performing side facing the All Blacks will be causing enough sleepless nights as it is.
This performance was a world away from the power and pace on show against the Boks and Gatland has his work cut out to breathe life and belief back into his side and in particular some of those players who let him down here. Luckily he has some experienced heads to call upon next weekend but there is precious little evidence to suggest Wales will bring an end to a 57-year drought against the All Blacks.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup