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Referee controversy and Wales brilliance denies Fiji in Rugby World Cup thriller

Wales could celebrate a memorable win  (PA)
Wales could celebrate a memorable win (PA)

The 2023 Rugby World Cup needed a match to light the spark and in the final game of the opening weekend, it just about got it.

Fiji are everyone’s second favourite team, and they showed why in Bordeaux, led by inspirational skipper Waisea Nayacalevu against Wales in a game that was decided on the final play.

Had Semi Radradra held onto Josua Tuisova’s wide pass, Fiji could have pulled off a remarkable comeback. He could not and they had to settle for two losing bonus points in a 32-26 defeat.

It keeps them right in the tournament but was scant reward for their efforts on a night where officiating came under the spotlight.

Refereeing in rugby is incredibly hard, and often used by coaches and supporters as an excuse for their side’s deficiencies. On this occasion, however, Matthew Carley will face justifiable scrutiny for his lack of consistency.

In the second half, in particular, Wales were able to infringe regularly on their own line, receiving warning after warning, while conceding just one yellow card when it could easily have been three or four.

When Fiji’s Lekima Tagitagivalu was the first man carded, justifiably in his case, the outrage from the crowd was palpable.

The performance of referee Matthew Carley will come under scrutiny (AFP via Getty Images)
The performance of referee Matthew Carley will come under scrutiny (AFP via Getty Images)

Their form in 2023 has seen Fiji overtake Wales in the world rankings, but shaking that tier-two tag is not easy and it felt that they were refereed as such.

Coach Simon Raiwalui was diplomatic after the game, congratulating Wales for their victory, but also clearly a little frustrated at the inconsistency.

He said: “It’s pretty tough to talk when you are hot after the match. I did think when we were down in the corner, we had multiple penalties and could have been multiple more and we didn’t get a yellow card [given against Wales].

“The referees have got a tough job, I respect what they do. As a coach, you are looking for that consistency. There were a couple of occasions where we thought we didn’t get the rub of the green.”

That being said, Wales produced arguably their best performance of the second Warren Gatland era. His sides have often been criticised for their conservative approach and the common consensus is that you do not beat Fiji by playing them at their own game. And yet that is what Wales did for large periods.

As dangerous as Radradra and Nayacalevu were in attack, Wales’s duo of Nick Tompkins and George North shook off some defensive slip-ups to find gaping holes at the heart of the Fijian defence.

George North impressed with his hard running (AFP via Getty Images)
George North impressed with his hard running (AFP via Getty Images)

It was Wales who were the more clinical when they got into position to score, picking up a maximum five points as a result.

Just as crucially, this was the game that lit the fuse at the 2023 World Cup. The first seven games of the competition had provided some entertaining fare, but each one was decided by at least 14 points.

While some one-sided scorelines were expected, these group stages need some nail-biters and we finally got one.

It is 16 years since Fiji’s sole win against Wales, knocking the Welsh out of the 2007 World Cup. The officiating means that this encounter will not rank up there with that day in Nantes in terms of all-time classics.

But it still gave us the most jeopardy of any encounter so far. Fiji, even without their injured fly-half talisman Caleb Muntz, were able to pierce the Welsh defence with regularity, with Nayacalevu at outside centre the best of a very good bunch.

When they take on Australia in Saint-Etienne in a week’s time, they will have to win, but they showed that they are capable of doing so, provided they take more chances than they did this time.

Wales, meanwhile, will expect to pick up five more points against Portugal, and yet again have hit the ground running at a World Cup under Gatland.

His record on this stage is exceptional, with two semi-finals and a quarter-final in three appearances. Based on this form, they have every reason to believe they can do so again.