CLOSE CALL: Wales earn first Autumn Nation Series win over Fiji
PA - David Davies
Wales survived a major fright against 14-man Fiji before claiming their first victory of the Autumn Nations Series campaign by winning 38-23 in Cardiff.
Fiji had wing Eroni Sau sent off and two players sin-binned, but Wales found it tough going until wing Alex Cuthbert marked his first Test appearance for four years with a crucial try 13 minutes from time and Louis Rees-Zammit claimed a stunning solo touchdown.
Rees-Zammit’s 60-metre kick, chase and finish showcased his blistering pace, while hooker Ryan Elias touched down twice and there there were also tries for scrum-half Kieran Hardy and full-back Liam Williams, with Dan Biggar and Callum Sheedy each kicking two conversions.
Fiji, though, almost triumphed over adversity after Sau was red-carded for a dangerous tackle after 25 minutes.
Captain Waisea Nayacalevu scored two tries – his second score being a spectacular team try – while fly-half Ben Volavola kicked 13 points.
But Fiji were ultimately denied a first victory over Wales at the Principality Stadium, and only a second in 13 attempts against the reigning Six Nations champions.
Wales prop WillGriff John was handed a first Test start, with the Scarlets forward replacing Tomas Francis, who suffered concussion during training on Friday.
Wasps flanker Thomas Young made his first Wales appearance for more than two years, and wing Cuthbert returned following a four-year international absence, but centre Josh Adams was a late withdrawal and Saracens’ Nick Tompkins started.
Fiji stunned Wales with a try after just four minutes as they struck from their first attack.
The ball was moved at a rapid rate of knots, number eight Viliame Mata delivered a superb pass to skipper Nayacalevu and the centre sprinted over, with Volavola converting.
Wales’ troubles did not end there either, as John was forced off injured – he was replaced by Dillon Lewis – and Volavola kicked a penalty to move Fiji 10-0 ahead.
But the home side then opened their account through an 11th-minute touchdown for Elias as Fiji’s forwards were driven backwards from a lineout before Biggar’s conversion made it 10-7.
John failed a head injury assessment, meaning Lewis became a permanent replacement, but Fiji soon encountered major problems as Sau was sent off by referee Nic Berry following a swinging arm hit to Wales centre Johnny Williams’ head.
Berry had a lengthy discussion with television match official Stuart Terheege, having initially looked at issuing a yellow card, but a red was unquestionably the correct decision.
Wales exerted relentless pressure as the interval approached and Fiji were reduced to 13 players when flanker Albert Tuisue was sin-binned for a technical infringement.
And the home side pounced from close range, with Hardy darting over for a try that Biggar converted.
Wales thought they had added a third try on the stroke of half-time after Rees-Zammit caught Biggar’s kick and sprinted clear, but the ball had drifted over the touchline during build-up play and the score was disallowed, meaning Wales had a 14-13 lead at the break.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, though, Fiji regained the lead three minutes into the second period when Volavola kicked a 45-metre penalty.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac began to make changes, sending on Ospreys prop Gareth Thomas and Cardiff scrum-half Tomos Williams, before Volavola should have extended Fiji’s lead, but he drifted a penalty attempt wide.
But the visitors did not have to wait much longer for a second try as a brilliant move from deep inside their own half was finished by Nayacalevu and Volavola’s successful touchline conversion made it 23-14.
Wales, though, staged a grandstand finish with tries for Elias, Cuthbert, Rees-Zammit and Williams during a devastating 17-minute spell, and Fiji’s outstanding effort ultimately proved fruitless during an outstanding contest.
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