A fast and furious Fiji stand poised to derail Australia’s campaign for a third World Cup triumph unless Michael Cheika’s side can avoid their self-sabotaging tendency to cough up possession, according to former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer.
A loss to the Flying Fijians in the Sapporo opener on Saturday may not be terminal for Australia’s hopes of reaching the knockout rounds but it would place them under huge pressure to beat Six Nations champions Wales in their second Pool D game.
Under New Zealander coach John McKee, Fiji enter the World Cup the pick of the Pacific nations and confident of producing an early boilover as they look to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2007.
Australia, however, have blown hot and cold in the leadup to Japan, thrashing the All Blacks 47-26 in Perth before suffering a humiliating 36-0 defeat away to the world champions two weeks later.
Dwyer said it was the Wallabies’ latter performance at Eden Park, when they failed to hold onto the ball long enough to build pressure and were punished mercilessly for their mistakes, that concerned him.
“Fiji is not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Dwyer, who guided Australia to its maiden World Cup triumph in 1991, told Reuters in an interview.
“We dropped that much ball in the last game against New Zealand. Against Fiji, if we drop that much ball, they will hurt us.
“Security of possession is tantamount. If you drop the ball, throw long passes, and passes behind a player which we’ve been guilty of, then you’re in trouble. I mean, they can score a try in the blink of an eye.”
Cheika has retained most of the starting side that beat New Zealand in Perth for the Fiji clash, but restored David Pocock into the back row alongside flanker-captain Michael Hooper, a reprise of the “Pooper” combination that proved instrumental in the team’s run to the final of the 2015 World Cup in England.
With Isi Naisarani on the blindside, the relatively short back row may be a “little bit of a risk” for the Wallabies’ lineout but not an unmanageable one, Dwyer said.
“Hooper can win some line out ball, he’s very agile and very quick off the ground,” added the 78-year-old.
“Maybe we’re saying, ‘forget upsetting Fiji’s lineout, we’re really focusing on playing our game, we believe we can score more points than they can score’.”
Dwyer, overall, gave a cautious endorsement of a Wallabies squad strong enough to leave experienced World Cup campaigners like Bernard Foley and Adam Ashley-Cooper out of the matchday team against Fiji altogether.
However, he saw vulnerability in the back three of fullback Kurtley Beale and wingers Reece Hodge and Marika Koroibete.
Although a very good player, Hodge lacked “acceleration” for a winger, said Dwyer, while Beale is not the same safe pair of hands under the high ball that former fullback Israel Folau was before his sacking in May.
“I don’t think he caught one ball (against New Zealand), did he?” Dwyer said of Beale.
“One thing I can guarantee is that he’ll be getting plenty of practice under the high ball — against Fiji, against everyone.”