I can’t say I’ve fully recovered from Saturday night. In fact, I’m sure many of you feel the same. You’ll have to excuse me for a couple of days, therefore, before I can write any sort of analysis on the disastrous night that saw England become the first hosts ever to be knocked out of the World Cup in the group stages.
Having said that, I’m actually one of the lucky ones. With mixed family heritage, but season tickets at The Stoop for the last 11 years, my allegiance to England comes mainly from us fielding the boys in the quartered shirts. But for once, I think I’ll sympathise with my mother’s Welsh roots. It somewhat helps the anguish, therefore, that last Thursday I found myself tucked away in the Millennium for what was one of the best days of my rugby watching life.
For a start, the Millennium has, and will always be, one of my favourite venues in the world. For all the glory of Twickenham, to have a stadium right in the very heart of the city is something quite special. Even hours before kick-off, the city was buzzing, with face painters, market sellers and flag bearers dominating the streets. Tourists surrounded the rugby ball installation at the castle [@LWOSThomasLiv and I included], an impressive array of dragon hats queued many deep in the pubs, and the Fanzone at the Blues’ ground was shadowed in a haze of red. We were lucky enough to find ourselves walking into the Fanzone with none other than the legend winger Shane Williams, who happily obliged for a photo before disappearing into a crowd of admirers. I promise I wasn’t as enthusiastic as this Japanese fan, but it was something close.
Our second treat of the day came from a bit of insider knowledge, as my uncle is a member of the Cardiff Alms Park Male Voice Choir. They are sponsored by the Angel Hotel and sing regularly pre-game in the hotel foyer just opposite the ground. And what a delight it is – I would recommend to anyone who finds themselves in the area, and not just because I’m heavily biased. Hearty Welsh lungs belting out the likes of Cwm Rhondda and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau doesn’t half get you into the spirit of the game. Actually, I was quite taken aback by it all, especially the crowds of people who had gathered to watch whilst BBC Radio Wales broadcast the performance live.
A decision to enter the ground early also paid off, as we set off to explore from our seats in the heavens of the North Stand. A trip to the tunnel edge saw us welcome the entirety of both teams from metres away, cue another fan selfie – this time with Jamie Roberts – and I was a very happy Quins fan indeed.
And what a match to watch. From a professional perspective, the game was a mess. Errors everywhere, a complete lack of phases and a style of frantic, loose play that never really allowed momentum to settle either way. But from the stands, it was an absolute thriller. The Welsh passion to hunt down the bonus point win, combined with the Fijian sevens’ inspired approach to the game, allowed a fast paced encounter which was played at high intensity using every inch of the pitch. Indeed, you only have to look at the stats to see that this game was won in the loose – Wales carried the ball a total of 589m, and Fiji 566m over the course of the 80 minutes. It was both compelling and frenetic, with frequent line breaks, and a Fijian side that constantly threatened and never gave up despite the Welsh dominance on the score board.
Indeed, the win was never secure for the boys in Black, although they did retreat to the changing rooms at half time with a comfortable lead. On the one hand, the Fijians dominated the scrum all afternoon and yet again, as against England, the Welsh set piece looked fragile. Welsh tackle completion was also alarmingly low at 78%, which can only give credit to the strength of the Fijian side. Their advantage instead came from sterling runs by the likes of Faletau, who was awarded his 50th cap, George North, and Matthew Morgan, and turnovers which originated deep in the Fijian half. With no stretchers on the pitch this week, the Welsh team were allowed to shine and gel together, and although Biggar limped off to the worry of the fans, it was, fortunately, just cramp. Impressive performances were therefore made by Morgan, Davies and, once again, Biggar, who outclassed his opposing number 10 Ben Volavola, scoring 13 points from the boot.
With tries from scrum half Gareth Davies, and hooker Scott Baldwin, the final score read 23-13 to Wales, but this was a match fought to the death, with neither side tiring nor giving up hope into the dying moments of the game. Poor Welsh kicking from hand allowed Fiji to remain in the game as they controlled the aerial battle, although they were unable to convert on multiple occasions, and may have fared better had they a more experienced fly half among their ranks. No bonus point for the Welsh, but the scoreline was enough, thanks to the English result this weekend, to guarantee qualification to the quarter finals, with next week’s game against Australia now irrelevant.
It was, all in all, a fantastic match to watch, and I don’t think I’ll see such a vibrant game run at such width and pace for some time. The fans were kept on the edge of their seats throughout, and were never allowed to relax as the tension was maintained for the duration of the 80 minutes. And, for us all to be able to make our way back to the fanzone post match to indulge in Fijian traditional music and dancing demonstrates how this World Cup really is achieving a world in union. So Thank You, Cardiff, for patching up my World Cup woes, and I think that my Welsh shirt may be getting a bit more wear in the weeks to come..