Star Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit scored a memorable kick-and-chase try to seal a hard-fought 38-23 victory over 14-man Fiji at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Sunday.
Rees-Zammit, who holds Maltese descent and his brother Taylor played for Malta in their 24-10 win over Slovenia last month, is the new rising star in Welsh rugby, and his late heroics secured Wales’ 11th win in 13 encounters over Fiji.
Their sole defeat came at the Rugby World Cup in France in 2007, and came as welcome relief following losses to South Africa (23-18) and New Zealand (54-16), with Australia to come next week.
Wales had led 14-13 at half-time thanks to tries by Ryan Elias and Kieran Hardy, both converted by Dan Biggar, after Fiji opened the scoring through skipper Waisea Nayacalevu, Ben Volavola converting and also adding two penalties.
Fiji, however, were forced to play 65 minutes of the match with 14 men after winger Eroni Sau, nicknamed ‘Sledgehammer’, was red carded for a swinging arm, and also had two other players shown yellow cards.
Further second-half tries by Elias, Alex Cuthbert, Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams, despite a second for Nayacalevu, were enough for the Welsh, who were again drawn in the same World Cup pool as Fiji in 2023, to edge the Islanders, missing their southern hemisphere-based contingent because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“We got ourselves into some good positions and then gave errors away at the breakdown,” Wales coach Wayne Pivac told Amazon Prime broadcasters.
“We made it hard for ourselves, they had everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Wales had the sort of start Pivac, who was in charge of Fiji between 2004-07, would likely have warned against, falling foul to the free-running, off-loading style of game so associated with the Pacific islanders.
With just five minutes played, Fiji drove into the Welsh 22m area, the ball was recycled left and Viliame Mata held up the ball one-handed through two tackles to set up skipper Nayacalevu.
Volavola extended his side’s lead to 10 with a straightforward penalty.
Wales spurred two shots at goal to instead go for a driving line-out maul, hooker Elias successfully going over at the second attempt, Biggar kicking the extras.
Volavola hit a second penalty, but the game was then blown wide open after Australian referee Nic Berry was handed no option but to hand Edinburgh winger Sau a straight red card for a dreadful swinging arm to the head of prone Wales centre Johnny Williams.
Biggar kicked to the corner in a bid to make Fiji pay immediately for their numerical inferiority, but the Islanders held out and went back up the field.
Nullified in open-field attack, Wales again went for the corner after more Fijian ill-discipline, Fiji flanker Albert Tuisue eventually yellow-carded.
With the visitors now down to 13, Wales opted for the scrum instead of an easy three-pointer, and Hardy duly nipped through a stretched defence for a try Biggar also converted to hand the home side a 14-13 lead, the first of the game just on the stroke of half-time.
The second period opened with Fiji retaking the lead, Volavola knocking over his third penalty.
Nayacalevu sprinted in for his second after Wales were caught napping when full-back Setareki Tuicuvu took a quick free-kick, passed back inside to Vilimoni Botitu who in turn found the captain on his outside.
Volavola converted for a 23-14 lead going into the final quarter in front of more than 63,000 fans.
But no sooner had Fiji seen replacement prop Eroni Mawi yellow carded then Elias was driven over for his second to move Wales to withing four points.
Wales attacked the Fijian line-out and it paid off, the ball spun neatly through a revamped backline to Cuthbert, the winger diving in at the corner in his first international in four years.
Rees-Zammit then turned on his after-burners from halfway to chase down his own kick ahead, before Liam Williams put the icing on the cake.