Wales 34 Fiji 38

WELSH rugby RIP. For this was one of the worst days in its history as Wales crashed out of the World Cup with a humiliating defeat at the hands of Fiji in Nantes.

This shocking setback means Wales failed to fulfil the absolute minimum requirement of a place in the quarter-finals of the tournament.

It's also right up there alongside two previous defeats by Samoa (Western Samoa the first time in 1991) and a 90-point hiding by South Africa five years later among the dark days of Welsh rugby.

But this has been an accident waiting to happen as long as Gareth Jenkins has been coach, his appalling record now reading just six wins in 20 games while he's been in charge, only one of them against a major country.

It's the best resignation speech anyone could write without actually putting pen to paper, which Jenkins clearly had no intention of doing before those higher up did it for him after the game.

Wales have once again become the laughing-stock of world rugby and it was time for action, for Welsh results and tactics have been completely unacceptable.

This time Wales had everything in their favour - but they still blew it, and the Fijians even had a player yellow-carded when flanker Akapusi Qera put the knee into Stephen Jones, Wales pressing home their numerical superiority with two tries in that period only to lose in the end.

It would be hysterical if it wasn't so serious because it now means that Wales will have to go through a painful qualifying process for the next World Cup, just as they did after missing out on a place in the last eight 12 years ago.

If you could divorce yourself from the slow and agonising death Wales suffered on the pitch it was actually one of the occasions when years later you'll be able to say "I was there".

For it was throbbing with atmosphere as all the neutrals in the crowd got behind the underdogs, the thumping beat as the TMO gave his verdict, the brass band bellowing out, the Mexican waves, the warm sunshine - it all made for great theatre even if Wales didn't relish being thrown to the wolves.

And the Welsh tactics and error count were simply beyond belief, for if there were two things they had to avoid it was turnover ball and kicking inaccurately - but that's precisely what happened.

Wales did get turned over, they did surrender possession and they did kick badly, allowing the belligerent South Sea Islanders to run the ball back at them, and they couldn't even make their vast superiority in the scrums count.

And what on earth was Martyn Williams doing when he intercepted, ran 50 yards for the try, and instead of moving infield to put the ball down behind the posts, kept on going so the try was scored too far out for the conversion to succeed? Beyond belief!

But it was still impossible not to get caught up in the spectacle, the sheer ebb and flow of the game, the prospect and ultimate reality of a massive upset and the whole electric atmosphere.

It may sound pretty unpatriotic, but by the end you almost wanted the Fijians to triumph.

They were wonderfully unstructured and unorthodox and their spirit captured the hearts of all but the most fervent Welsh fans as chants of Fiji, Fiji' frequently broke out around the ground.

Unbelievably, Wales went 25-3 down after taking the lead with a Stephen Jones penalty, the Fijians scoring 25 unanswered points in ten minutes.

The all-action Qera finished off a glorious move for the first try, which Nicky Little converted, as he did a second four minutes later by Vilimoni Delasau, whose marvellous running made him the man of the match, the winger leaping over both Mark Jones and Gareth Thomas to gather his own kick ahead and pounce for the score.

Little converted, then added two well-judged penalties and the points to a third Fijian try when outstanding lock Kele Leawere forced his way over.

Wales set about using their scrum superiority to claw back the shock Fijian lead and they made inroads when number eight Alix Popham guided the ball over the line for a pushover try at a retreating scrum. James Hook, taking over from Jones, who had earlier struck an upright with a penalty shot, converted though he missed a sitter.

Wales were at least back in business and with Qera yellow- carded, a 25-10 interval deficit was not quite as bad as it appeared.

Sure enough, they quickly grabbed two more as Shane Williams showed he could match the Fijians with a dazzling run and exaggerated dive for the first, and skipper Gareth Thomas celebrated becoming the first Welshman to reach 100 caps by plunging across.

Though Qera returned within a minute Wales had regained the lead when Mark Jones hurtled across after Williams won a line-out and put the ball straight down to Peel, who shot through a gap and Hook's long pass put the winger in the clear.

The hard work had surely been done, but Wales promptly threw it all away. Little kicked two more penalties, regaining the lead for Fiji at 31-29, but Little blotted his copybook by having a pass intercepted by Williams, who shot away for a try to snatch the lead back again, though he wasted a chance for the conversion by going over too wide out.

Surely this time Wales would prevail, but not a bit of it. Though Qeraa limped off Fiji threw the kichen sink at Wales and the TV match official had to adjudicate after a pile of bodies went over the Welsh line.

The drumbeat went on and on, the tension increased and a try was awarded to prop Graham Dewes. Little converted, then fell heavily and had to be carried off on a stretcher.

It was almost too much to take as the clock counted down, the tension reached fever pitch, and finally Fiji emerged triumphant. What a game!

It was the end for Wales, but out of it must come a new beginning.

Wales: G Thomas (captain), S Williams, T Shanklin, J Hook, M Jones, S Jones, D Peel (M Phillips 57), G Jenkins, M Rees (R Thomas 46), C Horsman (D Jones 65), A W Jones, I Evans (I Gough 65), C Charvis, A Popham (M Owen 65), M Williams.

Scorers - tries: A Popham, S Williams, G Thomas, M Jones, M Williams; conversions: S Jones (2), J Hook; penalty: Jones.

Fiji: K Ratuvou, V Delasau, S Rabeni (N Ligairi 66), S Bai, I Neivua (S Bobo 51), N Little (J Daunivucu 80), M Raulini (captain), G Dewes, S Koto, J Railomo (H Qiodravu 54), K Leawere, I Rawaqa, S Naevo, S Koyamaibole, A Qera (A Ratuva 73).

Scorers - tries: A Qera, V Delasau, K Leawere, G Dewes; conversions: N Little (3); penalties: Little (4).

Attendance: 37,080.