Australia ready to return Fijian fire

Picture: WORLD RUGBY

Fiji say they have been preparing for two months to combat the unique threat of Australia’s two openside specialists Michael Hooper and David Pocock, with the battle at the breakdown key in what is liable to be a relentlessly fast-paced game under the roof in Sapporo.

Pocock has played just 58 minutes of international rugby in the past six months. But Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika could not resist the urge to pick him on the blindside, with captain Hooper in his familiar openside slot and the Fijian born,1.95m tall Isi Naisarani at number eight.

Add on the selection of fly-half Christian Lealiifano, above, who likes to attack the gain line, inside the hard-running centre Samu Kerevi and it is clear the Wallabies are being primed to rip into Fiji from the off.

The Australians are well aware they will also be facing some serious firepower themselves.

“You have got guys like (Semi) Radradra on the wing, (Josua) Tuisova as well. These guys are powerful men but can also step you as well – a dual or triple threat,” replacement back Matt To’omua said. “We have got to hunt in packs – it is probably our best chance at eliminating their opportunities. Any time you get one of them one-on-one you might be struggling a little bit.”

The Fiji management, led by head coach John McKee and his assistant Tabai Matson, have emphasised that their scrum has improved considerably in the four years since the two teams last met. Dominant tight-five displays against Japan and Tonga this year will have caught the Wallabies’ attention.

But the Pacific Islanders are likely to need all that new-found nous and a bit more if they are to turn back the tides of history. Fiji have not beaten Australia in 65 years and face a World Cup points deficit of 83-25 over their two matches to date: a 28-13 defeat four years ago and a 55-12 hammering in 2007.

“We know Australia are a very good team and present a big challenge for us but, because of our preparation, I know our team is mentally and physically ready for that challenge,” said McKee.

In the spotlight

While Fiji’s set piece has undoubtedly improved, Australia know their free-flowing, offload game is the real danger. The Islanders’ backs are often focused on by their opponents but for To’omua there is a 1.98m second-row who stands out.

“Individual names wise, they are very strong in the backline but even (Leone) Nakarawa in the second-row who I have come up against in Europe is a phenomenal player,” To’omua said. “One of the best in the world in my opinion.”

Nakarawa is joined in the Fiji starting line-up by fellow Rio 2016 Olympic Games rugby sevens gold medal winners number eight Viliame Mata and winger Josua Tuisova.

But Australia too have plenty of power, with inside-centre Kerevi rated the most damaging ball runner in Super Rugby this year and rugby league convert Marika Koroibete starting to fulfill his promise on the wing.

Team news

Only 19-year-old Jordan Petaia, who has yet to make his international debut, was unavailable for selection for Australia. The much-hyped winger is expected to be fit in time for the Wallabies’ second Pool D game against Wales on 29 September.

Former Brumbies teammates Nic White and Lealiifano start at No.9 and No.10, so 105-cap veteran Will Genia starts on the bench alongside fellow centurion, prop Sekope Kepu.

The fourth member of Fiji’s squad to have won sevens gold in Rio, Semi Kunatani, remains sidelined by injury, as does Jale Vatubua. Tuvere Vugakoto, Eroni Mawi and Mosese Voka, who all play their rugby in Fiji, will start in the match-day 23.

Stats & trivia

Australia have progressed to the knockout round of every World Cup so far and have only ever lost two pool-phase games – to South Africa in 1995 and to Ireland in 2011.

Since RWC 2015, Fiji have beaten three tier-one nations: France, Scotland and Italy. But they last beat Australia in June 1954.

Quotes

“You should know me well enough by now that there is not much pressure. I love what I do. I am prepared to take responsibility and accountability for everything I do, always have been.” Australia coach Michael Cheika

“Could we achieve an upset? If we prepare well and click on the day, it’ll be a good game and we have a chance. But we have to deliver when it matters and that’s why it’s exciting.” – Fiji assistant coach Tabai Matson

More Stories