All eyes on Fiji for Wallabies on World Cup opener eve

Rugby World Cup
Beth Newman Profile
by Beth Newman

Wallabies captain Michael Hooper has the blinkers set only on Fiji as the countdown until their World Cup opener in Sapporo ticks down.

Australia and Fiji held their captain’s run session at the Sapporo Dome on Friday and the contrast between the sides was stark.

The open part of Fiji’s session was marked with laughter and jokes, as they played a game of touch football.

The Wallabies were more subdued -  AC/DC tune "Long Way to the Top" blared out of the speakers in the early portion of their training, a tradition that goes back to the 2015 Rugby World Cup when they played "Thunderstruck" before each match.

Australia's players gathered in a huddle and walked down the pitch, stopping at various intervals to discuss strategy and were generally keeping things tight. 

It was a visible shift from the jovial, somewhat relaxed vibe emanating from the camp in their pre-World Cup base in Odawara, a sign of the stakes this weekend.

The Wallabies were all business at their captain's run. Photo: WalmsleyIn his post-training press conference, too, Hooper was quick to dismiss talk of anything other than the present challenge facing the team in Japan.

Asked whether he felt the 2019 Rugby World Cup was a chance to push  themselves back up the world order, Hooper was quick to underline where his mind was.

“I’m only focusing on this tournament, focusing on tomorrow and we'll focus on Wales next week, that's where our minds are at solely,” he said.

“Not four years ago, not last year, right now.

Wallabies coach Michael Cheika has said in the lead-up to the competition that he wants his side to be unpredictable, a prospect Fiji coach John McKee welcomed.

"I would look to the Rugby Championship, particularly that game in Perth,” he said.

“They are going to want to play quite an uptempo game. They will probably keep their kicking to a minimum and hope that they can get some dominance as they did in Perth.

"For us, that type of game can suit us as well. Defence is going to be a big aspect in the game."

Hooper dismissed the suggestion that unpredictability could play into the Fijians’ hands when asked on Friday.

“We’ve got to play our game,” he said.

“We've got to play how we’ve been preparing, what we've been focusing on.

“And there's elements both for us, yes we want to go where the space is and you can call that unpredictable but it's just playing what's in front of you and that's going to be a good thing against Fiji.

“There's potential there, I think it's going to be a great game, a really good way to start off our tournament, both with the physical nature that Fiji come with and the ability they have across the park.”

Hooper said the Wallabies defence would be wary of the offload-heavy Fijians but said they had to stick together to nullify that.

“Don't know how much I want to lead on here,” he said.

“That inside channel’s got to be covered, we've got to stay connected as a unit.

“It's not about one-out things here. In defence, it's about being connected as a unit, that's the most important.”

Hooper will reunite with David Pocock in the starting lineup for the first time this year and said he was looking forward to running out in a new-look backrow that also includes Isi Naisarani.

“I love playing with Dave, I'm a fan of his work on the field, his ability to get over the ball,” he said.

“Coupled then with Isi, he can get over the ball well too and he's got a great attacking game and some good defence work there.

“First time this year that we've played in this combination, I think it's going to be really good challenge coming up against a big back five from their forward pack.

“We've got to combat what they bring in that area but another chance for us to play together, build this combination and see where we can land tomorrow night.”

Australia takes on Fiji on Saturday September 21 at the Sapporo Dome, kicking off at 7:45pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel, Network Ten and via RADIO.