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Wallabies survive Fiji scare to win Rugby World Cup opener

Australia hooker Tolu Latu was the unlikely hero for the Wallabies © AFP / WILLIAM WEST

SAPPORO, Japan, Sep 21 – Australia hooker Tolu Latu scored two tries in five minutes as the Wallabies came from nine points down in the second half to beat Fiji 39-21 and escape a huge upset at the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.

Fiji haven’t beaten Australia for 65 years — a run of 17 winless games against the two-time world champions — whose fans dominated the crowd of 36,482 at the indoor Sapporo Dome.

But that did not stop a physical team featuring several of Fiji’s Olympic Sevens gold medallists going ahead 21-12 against the 2015 runners-up four minutes after half-time.

Australia, rattled by Fiji’s powerful running, eventually made their forward dominance count thanks to unlikely try hero Latu’s double following the match-changing entry of scrum-half Will Genia.

Tries from Fiji-born backs Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete then sealed Australia’s comeback win.

“It’s a fantastic match for us, after going down like that in the fashion we did. Fiji really came out of the blocks, aggressive. They are big physical guys and they took it to us there. Really proud of our guys to regroup,” said Wallaby captain Michael Hooper.

Australia almost scored from the opening kick-off when Reece Hodge charged down an ensuing clearance kick, only for Fiji to scramble the ball clear.

After Australia-born Fiji fly-half Ben Volavola knocked over an early penalty, a box-kick from Wallabies scrum-half Nic White was too long and allowed Fiji to counter-attack.

Fiji right wing Josua Tuisova then bounced off Hodge — who’d already been knocked over by Semi Radradra on the other flank — and burst through Christian Lealiifano’s tackle before releasing flanker Peceli Yato for a try in the right corner.

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Australia eventually made their setpiece play count in the lead-up to an 18th-minute try for captain Hooper, who drove over after the Wallabies pushed Fiji off their own scrum.

Two Volavola penalties extended Fiji’s lead to 14-7, while Australia were fortunate not to give away a try when a reckless quick line-out throw from David Pocock led to Kerevi being tackled behind his own line.

That gave Fiji a scrum five metres out only for a knock-on — one of several handling errors — to cost them a potential score.

Australia’s forwards then earned a 33rd-minute penalty that led to an attacking line-out.

The Wallabies retained possession at a maul and, then displaying a measure of calm that had earlier been beyond them, worked the ball well across field through the backs before Hodge went over for a 36th-minute try in the right corner.

– ‘A dangerous team’ –

Rugby World Cup match Australia-Fiji (Pool D) on Saturday, September 21 in Sapporo. © AFP / Jonathan WALTER

Lealiifano’s difficult conversion was off target and Fiji led by two points at half-time, and they were nine in front four minutes after the break.

After a poor Australia pass sailed over Lealiifano’s shoulder, Fiji centre Waisea Nayacalevu gathered it up and ran in from nearly half-way before flamboyantly diving between the posts.

Hodge then kicked a penalty to cut Fiji’s lead to 21-15 and it was no surprise when Australia coach Michael Cheika brought veteran scrum-half Genia off the bench in a bid to regain control.

Playing the ball close from a succession of line-outs, Latu eventually went over from a maul for a 57th-minute try to cut the deficit to one point.

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Hodge missed the conversion but Australia finally went ahead in the 62nd minute through an almost carbon-copy score by Latu, after more good work by the Wallaby pack.

Matt Toomua, Australia’s third goalkicker of the match, missed the conversion but Kerevi put the result beyond doubt in the 68th minute.

Australia’s pack were drawing in Fiji’s forwards, creating space out wide, and Genia then sent the ball out wide to Kerevi, who barged his way over the line.

Toomua converted this time and Australia finally had breathing space at 32-21 with 10 minutes left.

Appropriately, Australia completed their win with a setpiece move. They won their own line-out, Genia found Toomua and his pass found Koroibete, who beat his man for a well-worked try.

“I’m not going to complain at all. They are such a dangerous team,” said Cheika.

“We know them very well, their players and that’s what we expected. Probably didn’t expect to be as far behind!” he admitted.

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