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5:30am Sun October 16, 2022
Pool Matches - Week 1 - Headingley Stadium, Leeds - Crowd: 13366

Pool Matches - Week 1: Australia v Fiji preview

Defending Champions Kick Off Title Defence Against Experienced Fijians

Saturday, November 2, 2019. 1076 days. That's how long it has been since the Australian Kangaroos played a game of international Rugby League, and it was perhaps the greatest match the sport's biggest stage has seen in recent history, with Tonga rallying for an unprecedented 16-12 victory over the Green and Gold. 

There has expectedly been a lot of turnover from that 2019 Kangaroos side to the one set to take the field early Sunday Morning Australian time, with only eight "survivors" named in the Aussie 17. Boyd Cordner, the previous captain, has since retired, with James Tedesco named the skipper for the side during the tournament. It means that Tedesco has now taken over Cordner's captaincy at club, state and national level, something which (probably) hasn't ever happened before between the same two players at three different levels. 

But enough interesting niche stats. Looking to achieve the impossible and cause an upset will be Fiji, a team whose last international fixture came a bit more recently than Australia in late-June, 2022. They were beaten that day by a Papua New Guinea side that was simply better than them, however some notable editions to the squad since include Apisai Koroisau, Marcelo Montoya and Brandon Wakeham, while Waqa Blake will not be joining the squad for the tournament. 

Let's be brutally honest here; the Bati have no chance whatsoever of beating the Kangaroos. None. Australia's team on paper consists of the best players from the best competition. Fiji, while boasting a small amount of elite NRL talent (Kikau, Koroisau, Sivo), only has 11 players with 2022 NRL experience, and of those, only 6 are regular starters. 

That doesn't necessarily consign this game to meaningless status, however. Fiji have two very winnable games coming up against Italy and Scotland and can use this bout against Australia as a fine tuning of sorts. If they can keep it close and push the Roos at all, even if it's only for 10 minutes or so, they will see it as a win before likely directing their attention to other fixtures. 

Fiji will almost certainly finish runner up in their group, setting up a quarter final showdown with New Zealand barring the miracle of all miracles in Group C. They will again be rank outsiders in that one, however in 2017 they were able to score a scrappy 4-2 win over the Kiwis, so anything is possible. 

As for Australia, they will expect to win all their group matches and win them comfortably. Considering this group of players has never played together before, a little rust may be present, but likely not for long. The players will be extra hungry to get amongst it on the biggest stage, especially considering that for those not running out for their country for the first time, it's been three years between drinks. 

Last meeting: Semi Finals 2017 - Australia 54 Fiji 6

Fresh off causing the upset of the tournament the week prior against New Zealand, Fiji were brought crashing back down to Earth against eventual champions Australia in the 2017 semi-final at Suncorp Stadium.

Across the six meetings between these nations, all have been part of World Cup tournaments, all won by Australia, and Fiji have never reached double-digits in their score - their highest being eight, in a 66-8 loss in the 2000 tournament.

Who to watch: It was an NRL season to forget for Daly Cherry-Evans, with his Sea Eagles finishing the year 0-7 to miss the finals as one of the biggest disappointments in the league. Drama has still followed DCE despite his club's offseason starting over a month ago, with constant speculation regarding the coaching staff and rifts within the playing group rearing their ugly head. He will no doubt welcome the World Cup as a chance to put all that behind him and turn his attention to delivering another trophy to Australia, however it's not just the Fijians that Cherry-Evans will be focused on beating with his performance on Sunday. Dual premiership winning halfback Nathan Cleary was named in the Australian squad, however Mal Meninga decided to go with the veteran for his side's opener. Whether or not it's a sign of things to come throughout the tournament, or simply a case of giving the grand finalists in the squad an extra week to recover remains to be seen. One thing's for sure though, DCE's spot in the 17 is by far the least secure. He will want to do everything he possibly can and a little bit more against Fiji to ensure Meninga knows that he is the man to lead Australia to World Cup glory. 

For Fiji, it's hard to go past Api Koroisau as the potential X-factor to keep an eye on. Koroisau, in my opinion, was the NRL's best hooker during the 2022 NRL season, playing a pivotal role in Penrith's success while also earning another state of origin jersey. Despite making himself available for Kangaroos selection, he was overlooked by Meninga for the squad, the Kangaroos coach instead opting for the proven rotation of Hunt/Grant. While there's not much Api will be able to do to turn the full-time result in his sides favour, he can still show Australian selectors that they made a mistake by outplaying his opposite numbers. Let's hope, for entertainment purposes, that Koroisau runs out onto the field with a chip on his shoulder ready to perform at his best

The favourite: No surprises here, Australia are 38.5 point favourites over Fiji at the time of writing.

My tip: Let's keep it simple. Australia by 46.