Up-tempo Wallabies game suits "unpredictable" Fijians just fine, says McKee

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten in Japan

Fiji coach John McKee expects the Wallabies to reprise their up-tempo gameplan from Perth in the opening World Cup clash in Sapporo, and that suits his dangerous team down to the ground.

McKee opened up some subtle mind games with Michael Cheika as he also countered his coaching rival’s claim that the Wallabies were “unpredictable” by saying all his Flying Fijians players - from one to 15 - were also capable of causing a few unexpected headaches.

"Michael Cheika might like to think his team is unpredictable (but) we have some unpredictability about us as well, with the type of players we have in our outside backs,” McKee said. 

"But it’s not just our outside backs, in our forwards as well. They can run in open space and offload and pass. Given some opportunity I think we can have have some unpredictability in attack as well.”

McKee was speaking after the Fijian captain’s run at the impressive Sapporo Dome, where players got to grips with the pristine indoor field. The surface is fine given it actually lives outside and is rolled in, but the only issue at play could be catchers losing the ball in the ceiling lights.

There is an element of deja-vu to the opening clash for both Australia and Fiji; after the two teams met first-up in the 2015 World Cup as well.

Their group was considered a “pool of death” four years ago, with England, Wales and Australia all in it. 

This time, Fiji are the third legitimate threat in the mix and both the Wallabies and Wales are genuinely nervous about the potency of McKee’s ninth-ranked team, which has been together for most of the time since 2015.

"Comparing to 2015, I know we are way ahead of where we were then,” McKee said.

"Our preparation has been much better and our squad is better and more settled.

"We are in a better place now but it’s like the high jump, the bar keeps going up. So the tournament will be more competitive than the last one."

McKee said he’d anticipated most of the Wallabies’ side after watching the Rugby Championship, and expected Pocock would return to the Wallabies’ side if he proved his fitness.

The two openside strategy of Australia would place a lot of emphasis on Fiji being effective at the breakdown to "ensure we can get continuity and get quick ball.”

Asked what he expected from the Wallabies as far as a game style, McKee said: "I would look to the Rugby Championship and that game in Perth.”

"They’ll want to play an up-tempo game and will want to keep their kicking to a minimum and have faith they can get some dominance as they did in Perth,” he said.

"For us that type of game can suit us as well. So defence is going to be a big aspect to the game. We’ll take our chances.”

There was once a time when teams playing Fiji would look to grind their flamboyant Pacific Island rivals into the ground in tight play, and at the set-piece. And the Wallabies scored two tries off rolling mauls early in the 2015 World Cup game, which they went on to win …

But McKee said the Fijian game had developed considerably in the last four years, and he now regards their set-piece as world class.

"I’d like to think we have made giant strides in all of those areas, and that’s well behind us. In my time, over five years, we have put a lot of work into our set play particularly and I think we can equal anyone in the world now. Whereas it was a bit of an Achilles heel before,” McKee said.

“It is always the case with a Fijian team, we must get the balance between the patience and building pressure that is required in Test match rugby, and using the players special talents and ability to run with the ball. 

"Our players understand much more about what is required in Test match rugby now, and understand for periods of the game it is about knuckling down and hard work. If we do that well we can create ourselves good opportunities.”

Now ranked in the top ten - ahead of nations like Argentina and Italy - Fiji proved once-and-for-all they can match it with the big boys when they beat France in November in Paris last year.