Date: Friday 19th November
Kick off: 19:30
Venue: Millennium Stadium
Any match against South Sea Islander opposition comes with a fair amount of trepidation for Wales. In particular Friday’s game also marks the first time they have faced the inflictors of arguably one of their darkest hours, at the 2007 World Cup.
Wales have historically played at least one tier-two nation during the Autumn Internationals. While there may be no such thing as easy game in test rugby, on paper at least, those games have tended to be viewed as something of a step-down. As a result Welsh coaches have taken a longer-term approach to them, opting to give players experience, or experiment with new combinations.
Such a policy has invariably come at a cost, with the Millennium Stadium witnessing some truly dire displays. Last year’s 19-13 win over Samoa was a depressing eighty minutes, as was the last time Fiji were in Cardiff – where Wales had to rely on a last minute drop-goal to scrape an 11-10 win, in one of the poorest Welsh displays in the modern era.
Fortunately Warren Gatland appears to have learnt the lessons of last year and his predecessors by naming a fairly strong Welsh-line up. Front-five excepted, it could be argued that the New Zealander has selected a fifteen not too dissimilar from one that could be in contention to start against the All-Blacks.
The Pacific Islanders’ preparation has been far from ideal. Last week’s 34-12 loss to France was played in torrential conditions ill-suited for the expansive Fijians style. That defeat has been further compounded by the loss of two of their most influential players with Seru Rabeni and Wame Lewaravu being unavailable for selection due to Visa issues.
The Fijians have also taken the step of making ten-changes from last week, naming a side containing fewer familiar. Only Seremai Bai, Ifereimi Rawaqa and Sisa Koyamaibolesurvive from the team that famously defeated Wales in Nantes three-years-ago. Such a drastic number of changes suggests that the Islanders are keen to expand their player base, after a year of struggles: a 49-3 drubbing from the Wallabies was followed by a sketchy showing in the Pacific Nations Cup.
What to expect:
Wales tried to play with a lot more width last week against the Springboks, but whether they decide to continue with a similarly ambitious game-plan against the Fijians is debateable. The visitors will be eager to coax Wales into a match as loose as the one in the last World Cup, while Wales will want to keep a fair amount of structure.
Head to head: Deacon Manu and Paul James
Rivals at regional level with the Scarlets’ and Ospreys’ respectively, the clash between the two has between the two is likely to go up a notch at test-level. The jury is very much out on James, after a fairly anonymous showing against the Springboks
All eyes on:
There are growing calls from pundits and supporters that Richie Rees should be ahead of Mike Phillips in the Welsh scrum-half pecking order. The pace of the game should easily suit the Cardiff Blues nine, as he presses his case for selection against the All Blacks.
For Fiji, Sisa Koyamaibole’s physical presence makes him a hard man to stop. The Sale Sharks’ Number Eight is likely to take two or three Welsh defenders at a time to stop.
Fiji are a shadow of their 2007 World Cup selves. Last autumn they were comprehensively beaten by Celtic opposition in the shape of Ireland and Scotland, and there is little evidence to suggest anything other than a similar outcome. Wales by 20.
By Paul French (@paulfrugby)