Preview: Australia v Fiji

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 08:14
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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Coach Michael Cheika said veteran code-hopper Karmichael Hunt had earned his chance with Australia after overcoming the "hardship" of a cocaine scandal at the start of his rugby career.

Hunt, whose introduction to rugby in 2015 was blighted by the scandal stemming from his days in the Australian Football League, will make his Wallabies debut aged 30 against Fiji on Saturday.

Hunt, who was named at inside-centre, joins fullback Israel Folau in the Wallabies team as the only players in Australian history who have been a dual rugby international and an AFL senior player.

"He's overcome some hardship, ever since he's come to rugby and that's what we want in players. We want them to be resilient. He's warranted the opportunity to wear the gold jumper," Cheika said ahead of the Melbourne international.

Hunt said his Wallabies debut was something to savour given the tumultuous path to his selection.

"It obviously hasn't been an easy road for me. So to be able to get here and make my debut against Fiji, it doesn't get any sweeter for me," Hunt said. 

Cheika has shouldered the task of lifting the spirits of Australian rugby amid a demoralising Super Rugby campaign, and he hasn't shied away from making tough calls to get the Wallabies off to a winning start for 2017.

He has dumped 117-Test hooker and captain Stephen Moore from the starting line-up, handing the captaincy to flank Michael Hooper, and named two debutants in Hunt and blindside flank Ned Hanigan.

While Cheika says 34-year-old Moore won't be jettisoned from his plans for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, he has given Tatafu Polota-Nau his chance to impress as first-choice hooker in Melbourne.

"Stephen's still our captain and our leader, we want to create competition so no one is guaranteeing anyone anything and he [Moore] knows that," Cheika added.

The third-ranked Wallabies carry the banner for a national game in dire straits with Australia's five franchises struggling and one, as yet unnamed, facing the axe when Super Rugby reverts to 15 teams next season from the current 18.

The beleaguered Australian Rugby Union suffered a further setback this week when they lost a million-dollar naming rights sponsorship of the code's key pathways competition, the National Rugby Championship.

"I'm a strong and passionate believer in rugby in this country. Yeah, there's some tough times on and off the field but it's what you get from those and how you respond," Cheika stated.

The Wallabies are expected to beat the 10th-ranked Fijians after winning 12 of their 15 internationals in Australia, with the Pacific Islanders' last win on these shores back in 1954.

Fiji have named hulking Jale Vatubua at inside-centre as one of three debutants in their line-up after starring in France's Top 14 competition with Pau. Vatubua will be joined by Rio Olympic Sevens gold medallist lock Viliame Mata, who plays in Scotland, and local prop Kalivati Tawake among the reserves.

"I have been able to select a very strong and experienced team to take on the Wallabies," coach John McKee said.

Players to watch:

For Australia: Karmichael Hunt needs to make a massive statement in his debut while Israel Folau is always dangerous once he gets going. Will Genia makes his return to the side and could be the catalyst to getting the backline going. Young hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau has been in good Super Rugby form and will surely be looking forward to making an immediate impact on the international stage.

For Fiji: Jale Vatubua will need to have the ball in order to make use of his massive frame while it will be interesting to see how Sevens gold medalist Viliame Mata takes to the internnational arena. Ben Volavola will have to be at the top of his game if he is to marshal his backline.

Head to head: It is always an interesting tussle right at the back as fullbacks Israel Folau and Kini Murimurivalu are potential gamebreakers. Ben Volavola has spent the 2017 Super Rugby season at the Rebels and will want to get one over on the Waratahs' Bernard Foley who lines up opposite him.

Recent results:

2015: Australia won 28-13, Cardiff (World Cup pool match)
2010: Australia won 49-3    7:0, Canberra
2007: Australia won 55-12, Montpellier (World Cup pool match)
2007: Australia won 49-0, Perth
1998: Australia won 66-20, Sydney
1985: Australia won 31-9, Sydney
1985: Australia won 52-28, Brisbane
1984: Australia won 16-3, Suva
1980: Australia won 22-9, Suva
1976: Australia won 27-17, Sydney

Prediction: The struggles of Australia's Super Rugby franchises are well documented, so it will be interesting to see if any sort of change will happen now that those players don the Wallaby jersey. Fiji could prove to be a bigger challenge than many expect them to be. However, Michael Cheika has a way of galvernising his players and that leads us to think that the Wallabies will claim victory by 12 points.

Teams:

Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Karmichael Hunt, 11 Henry Speight, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Quade Cooper, 23 Reece Hodge.

Fiji: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Albert Vulivuli, 12 Jale Vatubua, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nikola Matawalu, 8 Akapusi Qera (captain), 7 Naulia Dawai, 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Tevita Cavubati, 3 Peni Ravai, 2 Sunia Koto, 1 Campese Maáfu.
Replacements: 16 Tuapati Talemaitoga, 17 Joeli Veitayaki, 18 Kalivati Tawake, 19 Api Ratuniyarawa, 20 Viliame Mata, 21 Nemani Nagusa, 22 Seurpepeli Vularika, 23 Benito Masilevu.

Date: Saturday, June 10
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 15.00 (17.00 Fiji time; 05.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly cloudy conditions can be expected with a high of 14°C
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)