Warren Gatland has broken up Wales’s back-row combination that was pivotal in their opening two victories for Wednesday’s match against Fiji in Oita, but 13 players will maintain their 100% starting record with victory all but ensuring they will top their group with Uruguay to come.
Wales have only once emerged from the group stage unbeaten, in the inaugural tournament in 1987 when they reached the semi-finals, but victory over Australia in the last round has set them on course for a quarter-final in Oita against the losers of Saturday’s match between England and France.
Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi had not been used as a starting back-row combination before the World Cup, not least because they are three flankers by preference, but after a strong collective showing against Georgia, the way they snuffed out the threat of David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the breakdown was key in defeating Australia.
Only Navidi survives for Fiji, switching to blind-side flanker from No 8 where Ross Moriarty – who after Taulupe Faletau’s injury had seemed to be an automatic pick – takes over, while the open-side James Davies lines up in the same Wales team as his brother Jonathan for the second time.
“We are trying to think about the bigger picture in terms of later on in the tournament,” said the Wales head coach Warren Gatland, who had said before the World Cup that he was unlikely to make many changes for the second and third games. “It means a couple of players get an opportunity: Ross is hungry and it will show us whether James can fit in should Justin pick up an injury.”
And there is no harm in applying a squirt of air freshener to keep the starting players alert and heighten the motivation of the other 16 in the squad. Dan Biggar remains at outside-half after passing all the protocols following his concussion against Australia.
“When I told James he was playing and said well done, he replied: ‘You have finally seen the light, have you?’” continued Gatland. “He said he was only joking, but I have no problem with a comment like that, not just because I like a bit of banter but it says to me that a player believes in his own ability and thinks he is good enough to be in the side.”
Wales will have 10 days since their last match come the kick-off while Fiji will be on a six-day turnaround, but Gatland expects a full-on encounter even though the tier-two nation most fancied after Japan to have a chance of making the knock-out stage are highly likely to be going home – even if they win – having lost their first two matches.
“They were really strong in the second half against Georgia and have some real threats,” said Gatland. “We have to focus on ourselves. Shaun Edwards [the defence coach] has been speaking to the players about the fact we have not put in an 80-minute defensive performance yet. We have started our two games exceptionally well and if we do it again, it will take some of the excitement out of Fiji.”
Wales have got history, having been knocked out of the 2007 tournament by Fiji in the final round of the group stage in Nantes, their last match before Gatland took over. “The breakdown is going to be the crucial area,” said the Fiji coach, John McKee. “Wales have been very strong there in the World Cup and we have to make sure we get quick ball.”
Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (C); Josh Navidi, James Davies, Ross Moriarty.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Aaron Shingler, Aaron Wainwright, Tomos Williams, Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin.