If you want the “perfect” assessment of the challenge Warren Gatland’s Wales team will face from Fiji at the World Cup, then it has been given by double tournament winner John Eales.
The Aussie legend was in Tokyo last weekend to see the South Seas side go down 34-21 to host nation Japan but was suitably impressed by what he saw from the Pool D rivals to his own country and Wales.
Few Wales fans will need reminding that 12 years ago in France, it was Fiji that bundled Gareth Jenkins’ team out of the tournament – a result that proved the end for the coach and precipitated the arrival of Gatland.
According to Eales – nicknamed “Nobody” by his team mates because “Nobody is perfect”, Fiji’s build-up to the World Cup is allowing them to perfect their skills and become a real threat to the two higher ranked teams in their pool.
“Fiji is going to be a super hard game at the World Cup,” said Eales. “One of the reasons why Fiji and some of the island teams are so much better at a World Cup is because their best players are playing together and training together for a consistent period of time.
“In the past you could have been sure that your scrum would be better, your line-out would be more efficient, you know they are a hell of a hard team to defend but they tended to be more individuals doing great things.
“Now, what we are seeing with Fiji, is they are playing great team structures with the individual flair on top of that. They will be a really big challenge.”
Last weekend’s defeat in Japan was the Fijians’ third international of the summer and this weekend they face Kingsley Jones’ Canadian side in the next round of the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup. A week later they complete their campaign against Samoa.
Fiji coach John McKee admitted his players were taught a lesson by the Japanese. They trailed by 15 points at half time and then tried to play catch-up rugby.
“Once we were behind, and chasing in the game, we lacked composure to build pressure. We also tried to force the play too much, which resulted in turnovers,” said McKee.
“We’re going to have to take some very quick learnings from this game. We travelled with high hopes, although at the same time expected a tough game from a very good Japanese team.
“In defence, we made some critical mistakes, little system errors where players either didn’t understand their role properly or didn’t execute their role as they should have.
“We made some good breaks, but we weren’t able to build pressure as we forced a last pass or off-load. Now, we are looking forward to getting back home and getting a win on home soil for our fans.”
Eales was pleased to see his former Wallabies side bouncing back from their Rugby Championship defeat to South Africa in Johannesburg with their 16-9 win over Argentina in Brisbane last weekend.
“I think there is talent there but I think what they need to work on is a true belief in themselves,” he said.
“I think they think they can win the big games, but it is about getting that consistency in performance that they start to win the big games more often than not. There is potential there.
“I think one of the most important things we saw in the game against Argentina was the ability for the team to produce across 80 minutes.
“Yes, there were some mistakes and they could have scored more tries, but when the game was in the crux moments at the end, they actually took some control of that game.
“The team didn’t panic, they maintained their calm and stayed composed.”
Eales was a World Cup winner for the first time in 1991, when the Wallabies beat England at Twickenham. He then captained the side that became the first nation to win the Webb Ellis Trophy twice in 1999, when he received the gold cup from The Queen at the Millennium Stadium.
Australia have reached at least the semi-finals at every edition of the World Cup, except two, and were finalists in 2015. That’s why Eales believes the Wallabies shouldn’t be ruled out, despite their recent run of poor form.
“The way you perform and go through a tournament is quite different because, really, the only thing that matters is the next game,” said the 86-times capped Eales.
“Whatever you did that week, if it got you through then it doesn’t matter. It is just about keeping on progressing and you will have those moments of luck, chance or magic.”