Australia v Fiji
Langtree Park, St Helens
Saturday 8pm (UK time)
Sunday 7am (AEDT); 6am (AEST)
Fiji may currently be atop the Group A ladder after a strong win over Ireland, but make no mistake – they’ll be the biggest underdogs of any match in the tournament so far as they step up to face the might of the Kangaroos in their second Cup outing.
The Aussies blew away any cobwebs they may have had in a tough win over a strong English outfit to get the tournament underway and will be looking to build momentum against the Bati. For their part the Fijians certainly won’t be lying down as their stinging defence and attacking flair against the Irish showed.
Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens had some time ago flagged plans to give his full squad a run in the opening games and he’s stayed true to his word – but it would be very difficult to argue this is in any way a weaker side than the one which triumphed in its opening match.
In-form strike centre Michael Jennings comes in and 2013’s equal top try scorer in the NRL will be looking to fill his boots against the emerging nation side. Canberra and Maroons back rower Josh Papalii will play his first game in the green and gold. Eels star Jarryd Hayne plays his first for Australia since the 2010 Anzac Test, having represented Fiji in the previous World Cup in 2008. Josh Morris will represent his country for the fourth time, Luke Lewis and Nate Myles move into the starting pack, Daly Cherry-Evans will wear the No.7 with Cooper Cronk likely to drop off an extended bench, and Greg Inglis takes on the fullback role he plays at club level, with Billy Slater one of several stars to be rested.
Fiji coach Rick Stone will be looking to build on a strong opening by taking it up to the green-and-golds. The Fijians have a wealth of NRL experience as well as two former Kangaroos in their line-up – retired Maroons legend Petero Civoniceva and flying winger Akuila Uate.
Uate was a star of the previous World Cup, scoring a hat-trick in an upset win over France that helped the Bati to a surprise semi-final berth where they were blown away 52-0 by a Kangaroos side that included current Fiji skipper Civoniceva.
Watch Out Australia: Uate is working his way back to the form that earned him State of Origin and Kangaroo call-ups and forms part of a classy and dangerous Bati backline. Following 15 tries for the Knights in 2013, Uate notched a hat-trick in Fiji’s 32-16 win over the Irish. His third, when he burst through four defenders close to the line showing sheer strength and determination, will have the Aussies on notice. On the other side of the field, new Tigers sensation Marika Koroibete is also more than capable of finding the line as his five tries in nine games this year showed.
Watch Out Fiji: It should go without saying that Fiji faces threats all over the park but sticking with the backline theme there are a few dangerous Aussie backs who will be trying to displace one of the incumbents to put themselves in the frame for late-tournament spots. While Greg Inglis and Billy Slater can consider themselves locked in for matches at the business end of the tournament, players like Hayne and Jennings will be doing their all to try and displace incumbents Brent Tate, Darius Boyd and Brett Morris. Jennings in particular has had a massive season and his tries in Origin one and the miracle touchdown just inside the dead ball line in the season decider are feats very few players are capable of.
Key Match-Up: The front row. As much as the backline duel is potentially exciting, it may come to nought if the Bati get steamrolled up front. As such they will be looking to veteran skipper Civoniceva and the Sims brothers – Ashton, Tariq and Korbin – to help neutralise the threat of superstars such as Matt Scott, James Tamou, Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen (named on the bench for this game). The ageless Civoniceva got the job done in the opener with 117 metres from 15 hit ups while Ashton and Tariq Sims contributed 96 and 82 metres respectively.
Fiji also showed they’re not afraid to hit in defence (to the point they earned a full-team caution from the officials against Ireland) and their forwards will need controlled aggression in attack and defence in this one. The Aussies shared the work around nicely in Game One but Gallen, Tamou and Fifita still racked up over 300 metres between them, highlighting the size of Fiji’s challenge.
Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. The Bati have some class up front and in the backline but their little-known halves and hooker will have a mighty task matching the Aussies in terms of creativity, building pressure through kicks and last play options. Five eighth Alipate Noilea had a good game against Ireland with two try assists, a tackle break and an offload. The Fijian 6-7-9 combination boasts just eight NRL games between them, although half Aaron Groom (six games for Canterbury in 2008), hooker James Storer (two games for Souths in 2003) and Noilea all featured in the Fijian side that acquitted itself admirably in the 2008 World Cup. Even with fresh face Daly Cherry Evans lining up for the Kangaroos, one feels the experience and talent in the Australian playmakers will be the difference.
Televised: 7Mate – Live 6.30am (NSW), 5.30am (Qld).
The Way We See It: On paper this is one of the real David and Goliath match-ups of the tournament. The Fijians have some great players but this Australian side is strong across the park with no obvious weak points. Fiji will look to take a leaf out of England’s book and take the fight to the Australians early but the Kangaroos should eventually grind them out of it. Australia by at least three tries.
*Statistics: NRL Stats