“You're playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand.” – Shane Falco
In American football comedy 'The Replacements,' whilst players discuss their fears quarterback Shane Falco states his fear is quicksand. It’s a metaphor for those games where a single error rapidly descends into a torrid struggle. After 20 minutes on Saturday, despite the £3.3m redevelopment of the Millennium Stadium turf, Wales ran into quicksand.
Up to the twentieth minute Wales were cantering along with solid footing. Rhys Priestland and Jamie Roberts were linking well, whilst Scott Williams outmanoeuvred Fijian defenders with intelligent dummy runs. Wales scored an early try with a move that looked like a run out at the training paddock.
Priestland spent much of the week as the focus of media headlines and radio debates. A 'confidence player' stripped of any self assurance by overexposure and jeering buffoons; he entered the fray with such weight on his shoulders, only Atlas could sympathise. When the ball squirmed from his grasp like a goldfish from the paws of a hungry cat, it would have been easy to let the quicksand envelop him. Instead, Priestland fought back with intelligent rugby; a switch in play set up an Alex Cuthbert try and some excellent kicks from hand, gave Wales territory.
Wales did nothing with their territory, giving away the gift of possession like over exuberant workers in Santa’s Grotto. The usually reliable pair of Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau continually coughed up possession. Scott Baldwin saw throws drift away from being straight and when the ball bounced off Gethin Jenkins’ infamous melon we knew it was one of those days.
Before the game, the players would have known about how Fiji tackle. Like most Pacific Island teams, Fiji go high and go hard. They thunder into the upper body to take man and ball. Fiji legend Nicky Little offered some insight into the technique to Radio Wales presenter Chris “Korky” Corcoran. “The ground in Fiji is hard,” he said, “You go low, you get dragged 20 metres and you cut your legs.”
Even on the green, green grass/fibre mixture the Fijians tackle above the waist and Wales couldn’t have made it easier for them; carrying into contact with ball exposed up high and the carrier standing tall and straight. The ball continually dislodged and any chance of building momentum tumbled away with it as Wales became sloppy and loose, offering up more turnovers than a fruit filled pastry special of The Great British Bake Off.
Fiji’s lack of discipline led to a penalty try and then their reduction to 14 men. Wales played within the laws of the game, but their positional discipline left a lot to be desired. The backs drifted together and apart like boats in a stormy dock, while forwards found themselves caught in the attacking line to butcher burgeoning attacks.
It wasn’t just the players that managed to ruin a good Saturday out. I am a firm believer in the use of video technology in rugby and feel that many people’s criticism of the use of the TMO are uncalled for. However, it was difficult to be anything but frustrated by the over reliance on the television on Saturday; Referee Pascal Gauzere watched more of the game on the television than the people tuned into BBC1 Wales. It was unclear whether the Italian TMO Carlo Damasco was even watching the game at all. He offered such little input into the video decisions ,the suspicion was he had grown bored of the game and decided to turn over to watch England play the Springboks instead. Still, for all the referrals ‘upstairs’ and all the pondering from every possible angle, they had about as much right as Joey Essex on University Challenge.
So, the descent into the quicksand continued. The game stuttered more than Ronnie Barker in 'Open All Hours' and, before the hour mark had rolled around, the atmosphere had petered out. Those in the stands were doomed to an afternoon of Mexican waves and vuvuzelas.
For Wales everyone offered the same answer: James Hook. It seems the answer to playing too loose was to play looser. The truth is it wouldn't have mattered; if you put a Kia Picanto in a Grand Prix it doesn't matter who's driving. To think Hook could have magically turned the game falls somewhere between naive hope and sheer desperation akin to that of some 15-20 years ago. Let's remember what we learned all those years ago: There is no single saviour of Welsh rugby.
There was at least a shining star on Saturday in Scarlets fullback Liam Williams. Once again he showed the total commitment, determination and attacking endeavour he has become renowned for. The two games he has started in his preferred position of fullback have returned man of the match performances. The stats from Saturday's game make it easy to see why. Williams had 20 runs for a 224 metre gain, beating 11 defenders on his way. His attacking was as relentless as it was successful. Of the 32 times he had the ball in hand, he kicked only five.
What Williams offered though can't be captured in statistics. In defence his iron determination saw him snuff out a Fiji two-on-one only to track the width of the field to thwart another overlap. If Halfpenny returns at his expense on Saturday, Williams will have every right to feel aggrieved.
Few of the other eighteen players who played for Wales on Saturday will be able to make such a claim, but those talking of the delights of the rugby in this fixture in the past may need to revisit them. Since the first capped fixture in 1985, the games have done little to stir the imagination outside the spectacle of the World Cup. Wales ran rampant in Hamilton three years ago and Fiji's shock upset in Nantes is without doubt the most entertaining meeting between the teams.
Most games, however, fail to even rise to levels of mediocrity. Two large Welsh victories 17 years apart stand out from games that were ordinary at best. Saturday's game was poor by the standards of any top tier nation, but not a massive amount worse than a usual performance of a Fiji game. It wasn't the worst Wales-Fiji in memory either. That dubious award goes to Wales' 11-10 victory in 2005 - where real loser weren't Fiji, it was the paying public and the game of rugby itself.
Let's not get too carried away or read too much into the game, however. Lets not get bogged down in doom and gloom. In November 2010, Wales scrapped to a 16-16 draw with Fiji - their sixth game without a win - one week before going into a defeat to the All Blacks. Less than a year later Wales scored nine unanswered tries to beat Fiji 66-0 at a World Cup they probably should have won. So let's not judge just yet.
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