RLWC Semi Finals Preview
Australia v Fiji
If the sides run out onto Brisbane’s infamous ‘Cauldron’ on Friday night as named, Australia’s players will possess a collective 2834 top-line games, far exceeding Fiji’s 1048 matches of NRL and Super League experience.
Broken down; it’s a 323-game halfback who won last year’s Golden Boot, has two Dally M Medals to his name and a Clive Churchill one to go with it, up against a halfback who is yet to make a single first-grade appearance.
It’s the 54-test, 42-Origin and 358-game NRL veteran who is widely rated as the best hooker to have ever played the game, squaring off with a player who has only locked-down his position at club level in the past two seasons.
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.
To contrast, for Fiji – only three of their players have surpassed that 100 game mark.
Experience aside, in the corresponding fixture four years ago – the 2013 Rugby League World Cup semi-final – Australia beat Fiji 64-0.
It was a complete shutout, whitewash and fair-dinkum walloping.
Played as a double header at Wembley Stadium in London, the stage could hardly have been any bigger in front of 67,545 fans.
On that day, Jarryd Hayne was wearing a green and gold jersey and scored a hat-trick of tries.
On Friday night, however, he will spearhead Fiji’s attack from the creative role of five-eighth.
And in somewhat of surprise, Hayne will face only two of the players from that Kangaroos’ side in 2013 – Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk.
Australia’s side might have changed, but just how much have Fiji improved since that slaughtering in England?
Before the start of tournament Fiji coach Mick Potter straightforwardly said: “We're here to win it. We haven't come here to make up the numbers. We've come here believing that we can do the job.”
So far, Potter’s belief cannot be dismissed and Fiji’s progress can only be found in their results.
In their pool games; a 58-12 win over the United States, 72-6 demolishing of Wales and resounding 38-10 victory against Italy.
All three games netted them a total of 32 tries. Yet against New Zealand in the quarter-final, they couldn’t score one.
Incredibly, the Bati came away with a memorable 4-2 victory by taking two vital penalty-kicks.
Down and out towards the end of the match, Fiji’s players held strong and eliminated New Zealand from the tournament just a week after the Kiwis historic loss to Tonga.
The jubilant scenes after Fiji’s win brought tears and emotions rarely scene on a rugby league field before.
With Tonga having become the surprise frontrunner in the early weeks of the tournament, Fiji have emerged as a dark horse themselves and proved their capabilities at both ends of the field last week in Wellington.
Summing up their development, Fiji figurehead and the man who captained the Bati in that 2013 semi-final loss to Australia, Petero Civoniceva, said the win over New Zealand was symbolic of the side’s growth.
"It is a sign of team spirit and harmony. They are prepared to do anything for each other. The credit goes to the senior player Kevin Naiqama, who instilled a proud culture," Civoniceva said.
"We are proud of the brotherhood which has grown throughout the course of this tournament.
The Bati will need all the defensive capabilities they’ve got against Australia – who last week put 46 points on Samoa in Darwin.
It was a banishing victory that positions them well to make their 13th consecutive World Cup final should they overcome Fiji.
That statistic alone suggests if Fiji can upset Australia and create even more RLWC2017 history, it would arguably be the most famous victory ever in international rugby league.
Max McKinney | @MaxMckinney
Rugby League World Cup 2017 Correspondent
England v Tonga
No Pacific nation has ever made it to the World Cup final, but after a triumphant win over New Zealand and a resilient performance against Lebanon last week, Tonga are hoping to become the first.
Tonga have worked their way to this Saturday's playoff without dropping a game, and are now starting to realise their full potential says winger, Konrad Hurrell.
“It was our first quarter-final last week and this is our first semi-final as well - imagine if we make the final, it would be crazy,” Hurrell said.
"That would be good but we've got to knock out England as well to make the final."
But standing in their way is a determined English outfit which has lost just one match throughout the tournament after they fell short against Australia in round one.
England has been far from their best since their opening game against the Kangaroos but have enjoyed a smooth run to the finals with wins over, Papua New Guinea and Italy in their previous two matches.
Tonga has been one of the most clinical teams of the tournament completing over 80 percent of their sets in their past three games, while England has struggled with the ball and were lucky not to be punished by the Kumuls last week after completing just 57 percent of their sets in the quarter-final win.
But experienced English prop, James Graham, knows how important one mistake can be in such a high stakes game and is expecting the game to go down to the wire.
“It takes 80 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes to win a game of rugby league but only a moment to lose it,” said the 32-year-old.
“So I think what I can presume will be a tight game, I think that is the best way of going about it, really."
England coach, Wayne Bennett, isn’t underestimating Tonga and will field a full-strength side which is unchanged from last week’s 36-6 win over Papua New Guinea.
Tongan coach, Kristian Woolf, will also field an unchanged side from their narrow win over Lebanon last week, with the only change coming from, Sio Siua Taukeiaho who returns from injury and slots back into the front row.
But despite their strong performances, Woolf believes he hasn’t got the best out of his team yet and hopes they can put together another complete performance on Saturday.
“It is a really big achievement and special to be part of. The important thing is we have not reached our potential yet”, Woolf said.
“If we can play to our best this week we are certainly in with a really good chance.”
Tonga play New Zealand at Mt Smart Stadium for a spot in the 2017 World Cup Final on Saturday at 4pm AEST.
James Coman | @JamesComan1
Rugby League World Cup 2017 Reporter