Wales had to battle hard against a resilient and clinical 14-man Fiji to get a first win of the autumn internationals at the Principality Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Wayne Pivac had originally made five changes to the starting XV that narrowly lost to South Africa, with Thomas Young, Kieran Hardy, Johnny Williams, Alex Cuthbert and Liam Williams coming in, however he was forced to replace Tomas Francis with WillGriff John the day before the game, and then Josh Adams with Nick Tompkins during the warm-up.
Whether it was the late changes or simply Fiji flying out of the blocks is unknown, but the away side were on the scoreboard inside four minutes as Johnny Williams was pinged for not rolling away, allowing the opposition to kick into our 22. After a few phases of building Viliame Mata flew through a gap in the Welsh defence and offloaded for Waisea Nayacalevu to score.
Ben Volavola added the conversion and was on target again two minutes later after Wales went off feet at a breakdown, but the hosts did eventually get into the game through the strength of the driving maul as one was brought done allowing us to go to the corner, and the next was driven over for a Ryan Elias try with Dan Biggar converting.
Fiji did keep the scoreboard ticking as Volavola added three more when Thomas Young was penalised for not releasing, but then became their own worst enemy as Eroni Sau was spotted swinging an arm into the face of the already tackled Johnny Williams and subsequently shown a deserved red card.
Wales attempted to make them pay immediately but were turned over, however after returning to possession and forcing the away side to concede a number of penalties, the referee intervened again to show a yellow card to Albert Tuisue, and with a two-man advantage there was an easy run-in from the back of a scrum for Kieran Hardy.
Biggar converted and almost played a part in a superb Louis Rees-Zammit try moments later with a perfectly weighted crosskick, but the winger was adjudged to have been in touch when competing for a high ball a few phases beforehand and the home side’s lead remained at 14-13 going in at the break.
Despite still having the man disadvantage at the start of the second half it was Fiji who started the stronger once again, making the most of Welsh ill-discipline with a Volavola penalty before Setareki Tuicuvu got to a loose Dan Biggar kick and set about starting a counter attack that went through Vilimoni Botitu for Waisea Nayacalevu to grab a second try, the conversion good for a nine-point lead.
That seemed to spark Wales into life through the final quarter of the game, along with some changes through the three-quarter line, as Gareth Thomas ripped the ball free from kick-off and then a penalty took us to the corner. The first maul drive was pulled down illegally, with Eroni Mawi shown a yellow card, but the second was a success as Ryan Elias scored a second try of his own.
From the restart a scintillating Willis Halaholo break took Wales up the field, with Tomos Williams and Elias in support, and as the ball came back from left-to-right it ended up with Alex Cuthbert who evaded a defender to score on his return to international rugby after four years away.
Callum Sheedy’s conversion gave the home side a 31-23 lead, and when Seb Davies managed to hold Fiji up over the line, followed up by Ryan Elias winning a turnover after a strong Christ Tshiunza tackle, the game was effectively over as a contest.
There was just time for Nick Tompkins to make a break on a switch-back pass from Sheedy and give Liam Williams the chance to score as the clock turned red to make the scoreline that bit more comfortable at 38-23 after the conversion.
Not a classic performance by any measure, but Wales got the job done in the end thanks to an inject of speed and x-factor from Tomos Williams, Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo through the three-quarter line, while Fiji were no doubt hampered by the brainless red card received during the first half.
For Wayne Pivac’s men hopefully the confidence of a win can push us on to a better performance against Australia next week as the Wallabies arrive in Cardiff without a European win so far.