WALES must be licking their lips with the prospect of France as their quarter-final opponents because they have had their number for some time – and nor will Warren Gatland be fazed by getting South Africa as their most likely semi-final opposition.
The Welsh will be feeling fine and dandy about being on that side of the knock-out draw, with their prospects of reaching the World Cup final for the first time getting a big boost at just the right time.
They have also got a couple of the stand-out players in the tournament in scrum-half Gareth Davies and full-back Liam Williams. You need your key players to hit form at the right time in tournaments, and it is the quarter-finals where you need to get real lift-off.
Davies has done well, and has caught the eye with his ability to read play and sniff out interceptions. Anyone firing the ball anywhere close to him had better watch out, because he has the anticipation and the pace to run the ball in from almost anywhere on the pitch.
Williams has been impressive in attack and defence, and he played a crucial part in the Welsh fight-back against Fiji because of his ability under the high ball and the way he always manages to make yardage when he counter-attacks.
Fiji rose to the occasion against Wales, and for me even though they went out after losses to the Welsh, Australia and Uruguay – when Josh Matavesi couldn’t have hit a barn door – the way they play lit up the tournament.
Those games against Wales and Australia were close, and among the best in the tournament so far. It’s fortunate that their brain-freeze against Uruguay will not prevent them qualifying automatically for the 2023 World Cup – which is a big relief because they bring something special to the game.
Fiji are the great entertainers, and they had one of the players of this World Cup in Semi Radradra. In Japan he played on the wing for Fiji, but he is just as at home at full-back or centre, and it explains why he was so comfortable popping up all over the pitch, including at scrum-half.
At 6ft 3ins and over 17 stone (110kg) Radradra is the size of a No.8, but in this tournament he ran around as if he was supercharged. What also made him stand-out was is huge work-rate.
We have seen plenty of very big, quick Polynesian wingers in the game since Jonah Lomu took it by storm, but they were not all very fit, whereas Radradra is in such great shape that he can sustain high involvement for long periods.
His running style is quite upright but he is deceptively quick and very strong in contact, with that ability to bump tacklers off or knock them backwards, or to beat them with movement and footwork.
Radradra is great to watch, and the Fijians had a team with so many talented players that they should have made the quarter-finals rather than exiting in the Pool stage.
I would pick almost all their backs in the team of the tournament on the evidence so far, with guys like winger Josua Tuisova – whose power in scoring the opening try against Wales was unbelievable – full-back Kini Murimurivalu, centre Waisea Nayacalevu, and centre Levani Botia all providing memorable moments.
All of them are big, fast, with great movement and off-loading skills. I particularly loved watching Botia, who they call the ‘the demolition man’, running those great straight lines and scattering defenders.
Another exciting player to watch is Frank Lomani, who is a great running 9 with terrific pace and changes of direction – and showed just how really good scrum-halves can spark the attack.
Ben Volavola was also entertaining at fly-half as the ‘Fancy Dan’ of the backline, and if he’d been on earlier against Fiji they might have won against Uruguay. Because he wants to do the flashy stuff he is a bit too hit or miss – which is great for us watchers but not too good for Fiji.
The other outstanding aspect of Fijian rugby is that they off-load like no-one else, and nothing showed that better than lock Leone Nakarawa’s brilliant back-hand off-load to Nayacalevu in the build-up to Josua’s try against Wales. Even Sonny Bill Williams could not match that.
That sort of skill is off the charts, and anyone who says they have seen a more exciting side than Fiji has been watching another World Cup. All that Fijian backline made it special for me.
Of the other highlights, New Zealand v South Africa was very fast and incredibly physical, with New Zealand taking their chances and South Africa failing to do so. Wales v Australia was very competitive, with the Welsh dominating the first-half and the Wallabies the second, while France v Argentina was entertaining but not the highest quality.
Two more players I have really enjoyed watching are the New Zealand wizard Beauden Barrett and South Africa wing Cheslin Kolbe.
Barrett has been so impressive because even though he is playing out of position at full-back instead of at fly-half, he still gets better and better. Even though people question his ability under the high ball, Barrett has everything – and apart from Liam Williams he is out on his own at 15.
Kolbe has been like brilliant lightning for the Springboks, and it’s been tremendous to see such a small bloke with such a great skill-set confirm that it can still be a game for all shapes and sizes.
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