Australia, Fiji focus on World Cup opener amid long-term problems

Julian GUYER

Sapporo (Japan) (AFP) - Australia and Fiji will look to put their off-field worries aside with their World Cup opener in Sapporo on Saturday.

The two-time world champion Wallabies -- also the losing finalists in 2015 -- won just four of 13 Tests in 2018.

Now a good run at Japan 2019 is seen as vital to boosting support for the 15-a-side code in Australia, where rugby union endures an endless battle for attention with rugby league and Australian Rules.

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It has also been overshadowed this year by superstar Israel Folau's controversial sacking for homophobic comments and his looming legal battle with Rugby Australia, which threatens to cost the governing body millions.

Meanwhile RA chief executive Raelene Castle has suggested fans would be disappointed if Australia didn't at least match their 2015 performance in Japan.

The Wallabies' win over New Zealand, the team that beat them in the last World Cup final, in Perth last month was a timely success, even though the All Blacks hammered them the following week in Auckland.

Australia coach Michael Cheika, speaking Thursday after announcing his team to play Fiji, said: "Wherever the cards fall, I'll be absolutely proud of my team. They've put in so much work so far against a background of pressure from off the field, not on it.

"You know that I am coming here to win with our team."

For the Fiji clash, Cheika has selected the world-class pair of David Pocock, returning from a calf injury ahead of a post World Cup retirement, and captain Michael Hooper in the back row.

He has also been prepared to give players fresh starts.

James O'Connor, the one-time "bad boy" of Australian rugby, plays at outside centre in a back division where cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano is at fly-half.

Meanwhile Tolu Latu, who faced a drink-driving charge this year, has been selected at hooker.

Cheika, who brought O'Connor back into the Australia fold in August after a six-year absence having never worked with him previously, insisted the playmaker's "work ethic and the way he has reintegrated himself into the team says a lot about him."

- 'Scrum factory' -

As for Fiji, they face similar difficulties as other Pacific island nations in retaining their best players in the face of greater commercial and sporting opportunities in wealthier nations.

Australia, for example, have three Fijians in their starting XV -- Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete and Isi Naisarani.

Another perennial problem for Fiji, who knocked pool rivals Wales out of the 2007 edition, is a lack of major matches between World Cups, although they did beat France 21-14 in Paris in November.

While backs of the quality of Semi Radradra maintain Olympic Sevens champions Fiji's reputation for running rugby, there have long been doubts about their forwards.

They have, however, benefitted from a decision by World Rugby, which has provided some £60 million ($75 million) to Tier Two nations for World Cup preparation, to set up a "scrum factory" in Fiji a few years ago.

But with 12 of Fiji's starting XV at overseas clubs -- many in Europe -- they lack the same cohesion as countries reliant on one or two leagues.

The failure to set-up a global Nations League has not helped Fiji's cause, with a place in Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere's major annual international tournament, seemingly no nearer for any of the Pacific island nations.

It is 65 years since Fiji last beat the Wallabies, although coach John McKee still insisted: "We know Australia are a very good team and present a big challenge for us but, because of our preparation, I know that our team is mentally and physically ready for that challenge."

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