SAINT-ETIENNE, France — Four years on from their narrow escape in Sapporo, the Wallabies say they recognise Fiji represent a far greater challenge at Rugby World Cup 2023, but one still certain to dish out some defensive punishment — to those with whom they share heritage in particular.
Australia continued preparations for their second Pool C clash on Sunday evening [Monday morning AEST], in Saint Etienne on Wednesday, where Taniela Tupou did not train with the main squad. Assistant coach Jason Ryles played down the significance of a minor “hamstring niggle”, quipping that Tupou missing a session wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
Certainly the Wallabies will be sweating on his fitness given fellow props James Slipper and Pone Fa’aumasili are both on the comeback from injuries, while Tupou’s physicality and scrummaging will be invaluable commodities against the powerful Fijian line-up.
Winger Suliasi Vunivalu, who came off the bench in the 35-15 win over Georgia in Paris on Saturday, gave an insight into what he and his fellow Wallabies teammates with Fijian heritage could expect on Sunday evening, sharing with the media a recent conversation with teammate Marika Koroibete.
“I was actually speaking to Marika about this, about their last World Cup and what they were saying, were they trying to aim at them Fijian on Fijian, and he was saying that they were mentioning stuff to Samu, like ‘belt him, belt him’ in Fijian,” Vunivalu said.
“And I was [saying to Marika], ‘did Samu know?’ And he was like, ‘no, I didn’t want to tell Samu’. But I think they’ll be looking forward to the same situation this week.”
There are no less than seven players with Fijian heritage in the Wallabies squad, with Koroibete, Kerevi, and Vunivalu joining Mark Nawaqanitawase, Rob Valetini, Langi Gleeson and Issak Fines-Leleiwasa in Australia’s World Cup group of 33.
But of that bunch it is only Kerevi and Koroibete who have the experience of a game against the Fijians at Test level, so too fellow Wallabies Nic White and Slipper, though the memory of that 39-21 victory in Japan might not be as relevant as you might imagine, the physicality of their defence aside.
Through better funding and resources from World Rugby, the introduction of the Fijian Drua to Super Rugby Pacific, and a coaching team that is loaded with expertise, Fiji are preparing with a level of professionalism they have never before enjoyed..
And that, according to first-year Wallaby Tom Hooper, makes them an entirely different opposition to the one only four of his Australia teammates battled four years ago, the back-rower pointing to Fiji’s near miss against Wales on Sunday as proof of the scale of the challenge that awaits his team on Sunday.
“Not in particular, because I think they’re a different team,” Hooper said when asked if those who played in that Sapporo game had offered any words of wisdom. “If you look at the weekend, they played with a lot of skill, a lot of finesse, as they usually do; but they’re grafters now as well, aren’t they? They can go 80, and they play some really smart footy.
“It’s not that they were a bad team back then [in 2019], obviously they still had a really good side, but they’re at the highest rank that they’ve ever been and that’s due to their smart footy and the way they’ve been playing their footy and conducting themselves this year.”
Asked if their ability to go the 80 was the biggest change in Fiji’s game, Hooper added: “Yep, I think so. They can go the 80. They were always a team that you had sort of had to keep two scores on, just in case they pulled something out of their clacker and went the full field.
“But they’re a team now, you saw it on the weekend, it wasn’t just miracle balls, it wasn’t Hail Mary’s, it was really grafting, making those nice line breaks, consolidating that ball and then going again. So they’re a smart footy team now and then they’ve got big athletes, so we’re going to have to nullify that and defend really well.”
One of Hooper’s focuses this week has been the lineout, after the set-piece fell apart completely in the second half with Georgia. Wallabies coach Eddie Jones put that down to the relatively low 44 caps of Test experience Australia had coming off the bench, with Hooper revealing the 63-year-old had attempted to quell his disappointment after some ugly lineout balls in the second stanza.
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“Yeah, I had concerns definitely because it was me calling it,” Hooper explained. “So I’ve got to chuck my hand up there and cop that one on the chin.
“But, you know, I’m a young player and Eddie was really good. He came up to me after the game and said it was an unfamiliar role for me and definitely throughout the course of this World Cup, I’m not going to be first-choice lineout caller, but I might find myself back there.”
“So it’s something we’ve put a lot of work on throughout this week, we’ll continue to work on and if I’m in that position again, I’m sure myself and the hooker will have a better combination and resolve that.”
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Australia haven’t lost to Fiji since 1954, but Sunday’s game represents what will be their biggest challenge from the Pacific Islanders in recent memory. Well coached by former Wallabies assistant Simon Raiwalui, Fiji must win to keep their hopes of a quarterfinal berth alive, after a sensational comeback against Wales in Bordeaux was brought to a crushing halt by Semi Radradra’s last-gasp knock-on.
“Just that we’re just going to build every week and that’s what we’re doing,” Hooper said of the Wallabies’ approach this week. “It was good to get the first one on the board. As Rylsey said, we played 27 minutes of [good] rugby there. We didn’t make a single mistake, our attack was really firing. The thing that we need to improve now is our defence. And it’s perfect.
“You look at the way the competition’s going on, we’re [facing] Fiji, arguably one of the best attacking teams in the world, our defence needs to step up. If that defence steps up right now, it’s going to set us up really well for the rest of the competition. We’ve drawn pretty good cards here. We got our attack right last week. We’ve got to keep our attack good and get our defence up to scratch and then that will set us off on the right track.”