|Wales (18) 32|
|Tries: Adams, North, Rees-Zammit, Dee Cons: Biggar 3 Pens: Biggar 2|
|Fiji (14) 26|
|Tries: Nayacalevu, Tagitagivalu, Tuisova, Doge Cons: Lomani 2, Tela|
Wales held out amid a dramatic late Fiji fightback to edge a captivating World Cup opener in Bordeaux.
Wales led 32-14 through tries from Josh Adams, George North, Louis-Rees-Zammit and Elliot Dee.
Fiji responded with efforts from Waisea Nayacalevu, Lekima Tagitagivalu before Josua Tuisova and Mesake Doge scored late tries to worry Wales.
Fiji centre Semi Radradra dropped the ball with the Wales at his mercy with the final play of the game.
The wonderful eight-try spectacle evoked memories of when Fiji defeated Wales 38-34 in Nantes in 2007, but this time the men in red were the ones celebrating at the end with fly-half Dan Biggar named man-of-the-match after kicking 12 points.
Wales made a remarkable 248 tackles compared to Fiji’s 70.
The victory gave Wales a boost in the bid for quarter-final qualification from Pool C after Australia defeated Georgia in their opening match on Saturday.
Wales face Portugal in Nice next Saturday before further group games against Australia in Lyon on 24 September and Georgia in Nantes 13 days later.
This was the fifth successive time the two sides had met in the tournament with Gatland’s side triumphing in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
Gatland was beginning his fourth World Cup in charge with Wales after also leading Ireland in the 1999 tournament.
Wales had lost 26 games since 2019, the most defeats they’ve ever suffered between World Cups with Gatland retuning to replace Wayne Pivac in December 2022.
Only one win followed in a fifth-place finish in the 2023 Six Nations tournament, which was also plagued by a potential player strike action over contractual issues before the England game with that threat eventually averted.
Gatland stated this tournament represented a clean slate with brutal fitness training camps in Switzerland and Turkey following. The Wales boss predicted his players would do something special and surprise people in France.
Fiji had come into the tournament as the highest World Rugby ranked side in Pool C after rising to seventh place following an impressive victory over England at Twickenham. This was three places higher than Wales.
But they had lost fly-half Caleb Muntz due to injury with Teti Tela, while captain Jac Morgan was leading Wales on his World Cup debut with 10 players in the 23-man squad featuring for the first time in the tournament.
Storming start for Wales, Fiji bounce back
Wales had spoken about doing the basics right with locks Adam Beard and Will Rowlands making a storming start.
Beard took a towering catch from the kick-off and Rowlands forced a turnover penalty which Biggar slotted over.
Centre North, who was becoming only the fifth Welshman to play in a fourth World Cup, then sliced through the Fiji defence.
The ball was moved left and Adams crossed for yet another World Cup score after finishing the 2019 tournament in Japan as the leading try-scorer with seven.
Wales might have been buoyed by their opening start, but were also guilty of over-playing on two occasions in their own half and were punished by Fiji’s captain Nayacalevu.
He galvanised his side as the centre powered through the attempted tackle from Toulon team-mate Biggar and flanker Aaron Wainwright, to sprint away with Frank Lomani converting.
Nayacalevu and fellow centre Radradra were the catalysts for the second score with searing midfield breaks to release flanker Tagitagivalu.
The first water break, a concept Gatland was not keen on as he backed his side’s fitness and wanted to keep the game moving, came at the right time for a shell-shocked Wales, who managed to regroup.
Biggar slotted over a second penalty shortly after the resumption, before North crossed following an intricate move with fellow centre Nick Tompkins as Wales again capitalised on Fiji’s suspect midfield defence. Biggar converted as Wales regained the lead.
Fiji prop Eroni Mawi was denied a try after he lost possession over the Wales line. Wales scrum-half Gareth Davies was forced to leave the field for a head injury assessment after a high tackle from Fiji wing Selesitino Ravutaumada that only yielded a penalty and not a yellow card.
Wales held out for an 18-14 half-time lead as Biggar left the field fuming with his team-mates for not kicking the ball off the field earlier.
Davies passed his assessment and returned for the second half with Fiji lock Isoa Nasilasila giving away a cheap penalty from the restart after taking out Wainwright, but Biggar missed the kick.
Wales retained the pressure and following a Tompkins break, captain Morgan produced a searching cross kick to set up Rees-Zammit’s score, which Biggar converted.
A sublime piece of play from full-back Liam Williams with an audacious flick was followed by a bone-crunching tackle from Adams on Ravutaumada.
This created a Wales penalty and lifted the players, replacements bench and fans in the stadium.
A raft of replacements were made including Tommy Reffell coming on for number eight Taulupe Faletau, who had started despite missing the three warm-up matches in August because of a calf injury.
Fiji pressurised Wales as they brought on centre Tuisova and flanker Levani Botia, who lost the ball over the Wales line.
A thundering Reffell tackle laid the platform for Biggar to produce a searching kick that gave Wales the attacking platform for the bonus-point fourth try.
After Tagitagivalu was shown a yellow card for pulling down a Wales rolling maul, replacement hooker Dee drove over with Biggar’s conversion proving his last act before limping off the field.
The sides were evened up when replacement prop Corey Domachowski was shown a yellow card for a professional foul after Wales had been warned for persistent offending.
Fiji took advantage with Tuisova powering over to set up an enthralling ending as Wales found themselves under incessant late pressure.
Doge was denied a try before he eventually burrowed over and a loose Liam Williams kick gave Fiji the platform for one final attacking attempt.
They appeared to have worked the overlap to Radrada, but the former Bristol centre suffered heartbreak with the line at his mercy when he spilled possession for a try that could have secured Fiji victory.
Both sides fell to their knees, with Wales as relieved as they were pleased to emerge victorious following a breathless finish.
Fiji: Droasese; Ravutaumada, Nayacalevu (capt), Radrada, Habosi; Tela, Lomani; Mawi, Matavesi, Tagi, Nasilasila, Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Tuisue, Tagitagivalu, Mata.
Replacements: Ikanivere, Ravai, Doge, Mayanavanua, Botia, Kuruvoli, Tuisova, Maqala.
Wales: L Williams; Rees-Zammit, North, Tompkins, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; G Thomas, Elias, Francis, Rowlands, Beard, Wainwright, Morgan (capt),
Replacements: Dee, Domachowski, D Lewis, D Jenkins, Reffell, T Williams, Costelow, Dyer.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).