Preview: Wales U20 v Fiji U20

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Wales U20 bring their pool stage campaign in the 2019 World Rugby U20 Championship to a close on Wednesday evening as they face Fiji U20 in Santa Fe, kick-off 5pm UK time.

The state of play is a simple one for Gareth Williams’ men; win and secure a spot in the 5th-8th place play-off, with us unable to qualify for the semi-finals after Saturday’s 13-32 defeat at the hands of Les Bleus.

Our opponents will then depend on results elsewhere, with Argentina, Ireland and England currently occupying the other spots in the 5th-8th place play-off, while there is an outside chance of France or Scotland making it, should certain sequences of results take place.

First though Wales have to beat Fiji, who are returning to the competition for the first time since 2014, having been relegated in that year’s tournament and subsequently featuring in the second tier World Rugby U20 Trophy in the intervening period.

We did actually take on the Pacific Island side that year, with the Welshmen coming out comfortable 48-19 winners thanks to two tries from James Benjamin and a single score from Dafydd Howells, now both at Dragons, a try from Ben Roach, now a Wales Sevens core player, two penalty tries and 18 points off the boot of now Scarlets fly-half Angus O’Brien.

Ben Roach 7s
Former Cardiff Blues academy back-rower Ben Roach was on the scoresheet

Since then the Fijians have worked hard to restructure their age grade system, bringing players into the team and getting them committed to playing for the Island early, with eight of this squad having played for the country’s second team, the Fiji Warriors, already.

Unfortunately the majority of the squad that secured promotion back to the World Rugby U20 Championship last season have moved on, with the Fijians losing both their games so far with scorelines of 36-20 against France and 41-14 against Argentina, but there have been flashes of quality there.

On the back of those they have made a number of changes to the starting XV, having largely stuck with the same group of players in the first two games, with only two changes to the side that played Argentina after the defeat to France.

It’s an all-new front row as squad captain Tevita Ikanivere drops to the bench, while Christopher Minimbi is joined by Anasa Qaranivalu in the second row. Taniela Ramasibana returns at blindside flanker after playing against France, with Vilive Miramira switching to the openside and Aminasi Shaw is new at number eight.

In the backs Simione Kuruvoli moves from scrum-half to fly-half, Ilaisa Droasese shifts from wing to outside centre and Epeli Momo retains his place on the other wing, with Yabakidrau Soqonwasaloa standing in as captain at inside centre.

They will have plenty of quality off the bench though, with Caleb Muntz covering fly-half having come through the New Zealand schooling system, and counter-attacking full-back Ratu Waqaninavatu able to punish any loose kicking as space opens up late on.

Fiji team: Osea Natoga, Kaminieli Rasaku, Ilaisa Droasese, Yabakidrau Soqonwasaloa (c), Epeli Momo, Simione Turaga Kuruvoli, Mesake Tudrau Tove Kurisaru; Emosi Gabriel Tuqiri, Vilive Mairara, Isikele Lumelume, Christopher Noki Mesake Minimbi, Anasa Qaranivalu, Taniela Ramasibana, Vilive Miramira, Eparama Sailo

Replacements: Livai Rasala Natave, Tevita Veicavuyaki Ikanivere, Manoa Mocelutu, Joseva Varuru Nasaroa, Elijah Seniloli Kuilamu, Alivereti Loaloa, Etonia Bose Waqa, Aminasi Tiritabuanira Shaw, Josh Akariva Isaiah Vuta, Caleb Rava Muntz, Isaac Manoa Ratumaitavuki, Veresa Tuqovu, Ratu Osea Waqaninavatu

Epeli Momo Fiji U20
Epeli Momo retains his place on the Fiji wing

Wales U20 head coach Gareth Williams has chosen to make five personnel changes with one positional shift as he continues to tinker with his starting XV, rather than make wholesale changes for one game as has been more common in previous tournaments.

Tom Devine and Nick English make their first starts of the competition at loosehead and tighthead, respectively, with Kemsley Mathias and Ben Warren dropping to the bench, while Morgan Jones returns to partner Jac Price at lock in front of an unchanged back row.

Harri Morgan is still unwell and unlikely to be involved in the matchday squad, so Dafydd Buckland continues at scrum-half but outside him there is change as Cai Evans partners up with Sam Costelow as a new 10/12 combo, with Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler sliding out to 13.

Deon Smith gets a start on the wing with Ryan Conbeer rested, while there is still no sign of Teddy Williams on the bench. Aneurin Owen has flown home after the concussion picked up in the game against Argentina, with his replacement Ioan Rhys Davies not out in South America to take a seat on the bench yet.

Wales U20: Ioan Davies (Cardiff Blues), Tomi Lewis (Scarlets), Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler (Ospreys), Sam Costelow (Leicester Tigers), Deon Smith (Dragons), Cai Evans (Ospreys), Dafydd Buckland (Dragons); Tom Devine (Dragons), Dewi Lake (Ospreys)(c), Nick English (Bristol Bears), Morgan Jones (Scarlets), Jac Price (Scarlets), Iestyn Rees (Scarlets), Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers), Jac Morgan (Aberavon/Scarlets)

Reserves: Will Griffiths (Dragons), Garin Lloyd (Ospreys), Rhys Davies (Ospreys), Kemsley Mathias (Scarlets), Ben Warren (Cardiff Blues), Ed Scragg (Dragons), Lennon Greggains (Dragons), Harri Morgan (Ospreys), Ryan Conbeer (Scarlets), Max Llewellyn (Cardiff Blues), Rio Dyer (Dragons)

Deon Smith Wales U20
Deon Smith scored the winning try against England in the U20 Six Nations

The selection of Sam Costelow at inside centre is an interesting one, with the most obvious solution to getting both he and Cai Evans onto the field together being playing the latter at full-back.

It points to a game plan that sees Wales aiming to take advantage of a Fiji defence that, in it’s lack of structure, gets caught narrow. Maintaining our shape in midfield will be key to allow Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler and the back three to stretch their legs in the wider channel.

Having Evans and Costelow at 10 and 12 may allow us to do that better, and leave Ioan Davies free to step up into the attacking line from full-back as he pleases, a tactic which has shown flashes of working effectively so far.

Maintaining our structure will also be key defensively, as Fiji play a loose attacking style that fits their unconventional sevens-based attacking style of play where individual skill rather than cohesive team movements are the order of the day.

With the Fijians making plenty of changes it’s a great chance for Wales to make their mark in the tournament in an attacking sense, having largely played off the back foot in the two games so far. A big score would go down very well as we head into the second part of the competition.

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