Preview: Australia v Fiji
WORLD CUP POOL MATCH: Australia and Fiji will look to put their off-field worries aside with their World Cup opener in Sapporo on Saturday.
The two-time world champion Wallabies – also the losing finalists in 2015 – won just four of 13 Tests in 2018.
Now a good run at Japan 2019 is seen as vital to boosting support for the 15-a-side code in Australia, where rugby union endures an endless battle for attention with rugby league and Australian Rules.
It has also been overshadowed this year by superstar Israel Folau’s controversial sacking for his social media comments and his looming legal battle with Rugby Australia, which threatens to cost the governing body millions.
Meanwhile, RA chief executive Raelene Castle has suggested fans would be disappointed if Australia didn’t at least match their 2015 performance in Japan.
The Wallabies’ win over New Zealand, the team that beat them in the last World Cup final, in Perth last month was a timely success, even though the All Blacks hammered them the following week in Auckland.
Australia coach Michael Cheika, speaking Thursday after announcing his team to play Fiji, said: “Wherever the cards fall, I’ll be absolutely proud of my team. They’ve put in so much work so far against a background of pressure from off the field, not on it.
“You know that I am coming here to win with our team.”
For the Fiji clash, Cheika has selected the world-class pair of David Pocock, returning from a calf injury ahead of a post World Cup retirement, and captain Michael Hooper in the back row.
He has also been prepared to give players fresh starts.
James O’Connor, the one-time “bad boy” of Australian rugby, plays at outside centre in a back division where cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano is at flyhalf.
Meanwhile, Tolu Latu, who faced a drink-driving charge this year, has been selected at hooker.
Cheika, who brought O’Connor back into the Australia fold in August after a six-year absence having never worked with him previously, insisted the playmaker’s “work ethic and the way he has reintegrated himself into the team says a lot about him.”
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As for Fiji, they face similar difficulties as other Pacific island nations in retaining their best players in the face of greater commercial and sporting opportunities in wealthier nations.
Australia, for example, have three Fijians in their starting XV – Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani.
Another perennial problem for Fiji, who knocked pool rivals Wales out of the 2007 edition, is a lack of major matches between World Cups, although they did beat France 21-14 in Paris in November.
While backs of the quality of Semi Radradra maintain Olympic Sevens champions Fiji’s reputation for running rugby, there have long been doubts about their forwards.
Our Fiji Airways Flying Fijians halfbacks Frank and Henry share abit on the deadliest threats in Australia, lets see how our boys counter these threats tommorow..#itsFijistime pic.twitter.com/j09FA65Mxt
— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) September 20, 2019
They have, however, benefitted from a decision by World Rugby, which has provided some £60 million ($75 million) to Tier Two nations for World Cup preparation, to set up a “scrum factory” in Fiji a few years ago.
But with 12 of Fiji’s starting XV at overseas clubs – many in Europe – they lack the same cohesion as countries reliant on one or two leagues.
The failure to set-up a global Nations League has not helped Fiji’s cause, with a place in Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere’s major annual international tournament, seemingly no nearer for any of the Pacific island nations.
It is 65 years since Fiji last beat the Wallabies, although coach John McKee still insisted: “We know Australia are a very good team and present a big challenge for us but, because of our preparation, I know that our team is mentally and physically ready for that challenge.”
Players to watch:
For Australia: The Wallabies have loads to prove and they certainly have the players to be on of the contenders at the World Cup. David Pocock is always a formidable character at the breakdown, especially alongside his partner and captain Michael Hooper. In the backline, Kurtley Beale needs to make a massive statement in the absence of fullback Israel Folau. In the midfield James O’Connor is another impact player with World Cup experience.
For Fiji: Ben Volavola will have to be at the top of his game if he is to marshal his backline. While it will be very interesting to see how Sevens stars Leone Nakarawa, Viliame Mata and wing Josua Tuisova, who played in the Sevens teams that won gold at the Rio Olympics, perform against the Wallabies.
Head to head:
It’s going to be a very interesting tussle at fullback with the Wallabies Kurtley Beale against Kini Murimurivalu of Fiji. At flyhalf the silent general Christian Lealiifano will have his work cut out for him as he tries to outwit Fiji’s pivot Ben Volavola.
2017: Australia won 37-14, Melbourne
2015: Australia won 28-13, Cardiff (World Cup pool match)
2010: Australia won 49-3 7:0, Canberra
2007: Australia won 55-12, Montpellier (World Cup pool match)
2007: Australia won 49-0, Perth
1998: Australia won 66-20, Sydney
1985: Australia won 31-9, Sydney
1985: Australia won 52-28, Brisbane
1984: Australia won 16-3, Suva
1980: Australia won 22-9, Suva
1976: Australia won 27-17, Sydney
Prediction: The off-field struggles of Australia are well documented, so it going to interserting to see how they will deal with this during the World Cup. The side’s win over New Zealand certainly boosted their confidence however it very shortlived. Fiji could prove to be a real challenge and might cause an upset given their form. However, Wallabies have proven to be a totally different animal during a World Cup which certainly can galvanise a noteworthy performance, thus Wallabies will win this by 10 points.
Australia: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Reece Hodge, 13 James O’Connor, 12 Samu Kerevi, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 David Pocock, 5 Rory Arnold, 4 Izack Rodda, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Jordan Uelese, 17 James Slipper, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 21 Will Genia, 22 Matt To’omua, 23 Dane Haylett-Petty.
Fiji: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Waisea Nayacalevu, 12 Levani Botia, 11 Semi Radradra, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Frank Lomani, 8 Viliame Mata, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu (captain), 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Tevita Cavubati, 3 Peni Ravai, 2 Samuel Matavesi, 1 Campese Ma’afu.
Replacements: 16 Tuvere Vugakoto, 17 Eroni Mawi, 18 Manasa Saulo, 19 Tevita Ratuva, 20 Mosese Voka, 21 Nikola Matawalu, 22 Alivereti Veitokani, 23 Vereniki Goneva.
Date: Saturday, September 21
Venue: Sapporo Dome, Sapporo
Kick-off: 13.45 (14.45 Australian Eastern Standard Time; 16.45 Fiji time; 04.45 GMT)
Expected weather: Showers with a high of 20°C and a low of 16°C and humidity of over 75 percent
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)