Since this years Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) began, one team have been quietly achieving the steps needed. Not over doing it, but on an assured quest to reach their goals. So on Friday when the AUSvFIJ semifinal kicks off, the Australian home town favourites must fire.
A steady build-up is good; three victories in Pool play, followed by a smothering win over Samoa. Performing in four games, only conceding 10 points against – Australia look ready to hit the Gas! So opposing them on Friday, the Fiji Bati must play one of the games of their lives to stop them.
It can be done, nothing is impossible. Don’t let anyone say it is a guaranteed win–that would be insulting of how Fiji reached this point.
But in saying that, a World Cup has only so many fairy tales. Can we be witness to one more?
2017 RLWC Semifinal #1: AUSvFIJ
Each side made different paths toward this point. Fiji are the Rugby Sevens specialists, so the 13-man code does not always get it’s full recognition. But the team have as much natural talent as the Olympic Champion Sevens team. It is just a matter of transmitting that onto the field.
Mick Potter needs to meld his men into a strong unit. They have achieved much in four games, and are playing in their countries fifth RLWC. Reaching the semifinals in two consecutive tournaments–high achievers, and let the rugby league world know; they are ‘not just a village team’.
The most recognizable player they have is Jarryd Hayne. The cross-code star is the face of the team. The new RLWC try scoring record holder, much is expected from him. As too is Viliame Kikau, the line breaking prop. But they have a group around them who hold the key to making a semifinal, into a Final.
#FijiBati second-rower @BillKikau1 from his MBHS U19 Deans finals victory to playing in #RLWC2017. Aussies have planned 'Operation Kill Bill' to shut him down. Good luck with that! pic.twitter.com/JdusTkKROf
— Fijivillage (@fijivillage) November 20, 2017
Their path also saw them score a fabulous amount of tries. 51 offloads shows how gladly they are to share the ball, and led by the emotive Kevin Naiqama, they must enter the match on Friday with one purpose: defeating Australia [first]. Claiming a Finals place [second].
Home Town Favourites Must Fire
Back to the hosts, Australia will invite Fiji onto Suncorp Stadium as an equal. Not a Tier One v Tier Two battle, they will respect the opposition. Head coach Mal Meninga is an acute former-Kangaroo. Even though playing the Fiji Bati in his day may have been less threatening, the 2017 model is much more of a challenge.
Knowing the opponents strengths is something that teams in the NRL do on a daily basis. And having players who can interpret that information; learning off video and analytics, can make on-field decisions quickly. Their combined experience in the high-pressure environment of professional sport will clearly be an advantage.
Of the 17 Australian players who will take to the field on Friday night, only four fall short of having played over 100 first-grade games. Count on men like Cameron Smith to play on instinct, that can see players like he and Billy Slater change a match in a moment. Josh Dugan (see main photo) is another constant danger. The Fiji defence will need to be fully focused.
Threats lye across the field for Australia.
But those threats have not entirely been firing themselves. So the home town favourites must correct that–and quickly.
Which Team Will Handle the Pressure?
Expectation can be an impediment. In 2008, on the same ground, Australia confidently walked out to face New Zealand. 80 minutes later, their crown had been taken. So it can happen, and for the Fiji Bati they will use upset wins like that as motivation.
Australia will naturally play it cool. And they are openly accepting that it will not be an easy match. Plenty of ex-pat Fijians live in Australia, and they love to support their national team. Expect to see plenty of ‘We Love Fiji’ signs and national flags.
Home town fans may not be as vocal, but sometimes it is best not to crow too loudly. And Last Word on Rugby feel the same. Waiting on a fairy tale, while being realistic that they don’t come around too often.
The final squads are below:
— RLWC2017 (@RLWC2017) November 21, 2017
2017 RLWC Semifinal #2: Australian Kangaroos v Fiji Bati
Brisbane Stadium [Suncorp], Brisbane
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images