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Australia v Fiji preview

Matt Encarnacion NRL.com Thu, Nov 21, 2013 - 6:30 AM

Can Fiji overcome the odds and shock Australia in the World Cup semi-finals? Copyright: SWpix.com

Australia v Fiji
Wembley Stadium, London
Saturday 3.30pm (UK time)
Sunday 2.30am (AEDT), 1.30am (AEST)

Almost five years ago to the day, a young Jarryd Hayne shared the following: "We've had so much fun and the World Cup has been awesome for Fijian rugby league. In the end, lack of experience let us down."

That was in the bloody aftermath of Australia's 52-0 demolishment of Fiji in the corresponding semi-final of the last World Cup in 2008. 

Half a decade on and not only has Hayne matured into one of the best 17 players in Australia, but eight of his former – now more experienced – teammates will be out to crush him. 

It might not be of NRL standard, but that lack of experience Hayne spoke of is no more for Fiji. 

Then-captain Wes Naiqama, together with Daryl Millard, Akuila Uate, Alipate Noilea, Aaron Groom, Ashton Sims, Jayson Bukuya and James Storer, will run out for their second straight semi-final appearance. 

And four Kangaroos – Greg Inglis, Brent Tate, Johnathan Thurston, and Paul Gallen – will also look to qualify for back-to-back World Cup finals and help reclaim Australia's crown as world champions. 

Remarkably, one player from either camp – Hayne and Fiji captain Petero Civoniceva – wore the other team's jersey all those years ago. Hayne, who was Parramatta's rising star at the time, turned his career around with a life-changing campaign with the Bati, while Civoniceva was arguably the world's premier front-rower and is now likely to play his final game of his career. 

All in all, an extraordinary 14 players – 15 if you include injured fullback Billy Slater – will re-acquaint themselves, not for the first time, since the 2008 pummelling. 

Both teams have endured vastly different paths in reaching the final four. The undefeated Kangaroos have amassed a total 174-22 point differential over their four games, while the Bati responded from back-to-back heavy defeats to Australia and England with a comprehensive 22-4 victory over Samoa in the quarter-final. For the tournament, Fiji have been outscored 86-68. 

Watch Out Fiji: A lot of the pre-game talk has centred around Tim Sheens' toying of his backline, most pertinently around the absence of Slater. Sheens' first-choice fullback scored a hat-trick against Fiji in 2008 and has been the world's best fullback ever since, but with Greg Inglis now playing the custodian role the Australians look a far bigger team at the back. 

Inglis's only World Cup game in the no. 1 jumper, coincidentally, was in the group match against the Fijians earlier in the tournament, where the Rabbitoh made a game-high 206 metres and eight tackle breaks. Another similar performance from the Souths star could sink Fiji.

Australia loses little in experience in the centres with Tate edging out Michael Jennings and Josh Morris to take Inglis's spot on the left, where he'll combine with long-time Queensland teammate Darius Boyd.

Watch Out Australia: The retiring Civoniceva might be the centre of attention on Saturday, but his front-row partner Ashton Sims has certainly been a man on a mission. 

The firebrand prop doesn't accrue huge numbers – in four games he averages a respectable 75 metres and 24 tackles compared to Civoniceva's 119 metres and 29 tackles – but what he lacks in quantity, he makes up for in aggression. Take note of how many times the eldest Sims forces a slow play the ball, or gets the opposition all riled up. 

That's just how Ashton plays, and you can bet there won't be any backing down against this week's opposing big men (and Cowboys club teammates) Matt Scott and James Tamou. 

Key Match-Up: Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk versus Akuila Uate, Marika Koroibete and Kevin Naiqama. 

Last week, Uate, Koroibete and Naiqama combined for 558 metres gained – that's over half a kilometre! Yes, it was against a Samoan kicking game that had less direction than an unpowered sat-nav, but there's no denying that Fiji's greatest strength lies with their powerful back three. 

Where It Will be Won: Thurston and Cronk's ability to keep the Fijian wingers pinned in their corners will be crucial to sapping the Bati of their early energy. If that can be done, then it's just a matter of time before the Kangaroos overpower them. 

Televised: 7mate – Live from 2:30am Sunday (NSW); 1:30am (Qld)

The Way We See It: On form and on paper, it looks like Fiji are slated to give Australia a genuine fright. But the Kangaroos just have too much firepower, too many classy players, to lead them out of it. Kangaroos to kick on after halftime and win by three tries.  

*Statistics: NRL Stats