Fiji coach John McKee will deploy Semi Radradra at outside centre in the Rugby World Cup, and says the addition of the former Eels flyer to an rapidly improving Fijian side can help them ambush Australia in the opening Rugby World Cup game next year.
In exactly one year’s time, the Wallabies and Fiji will help kick off the 2019 Rugby World Cup with a pool D showdown in Sapporo.
The two sides met in the pool rounds of the 2015 World Cup, and another rival of that tournament, Wales, will also be in pool D next year as well.
Fiji scared both sides and England in the 2015 version but failed to claim a scalp, and McKee said the side’s ambition is to go one better and progress to the playoff rounds for the first time in Japan.
They’ll be well equipped with world-class players like Leone Nakarawa, Josua Tuisova, Nemani Nadolo and now Radradra – along with rising stars like Frank Lomani.
But to progress they’ll have to knock off either Wales or Australia, and there’s no doubt they’ll be targeting the Wallabies on day one.
“Where we are today I am reasonably happy,” McKee told RUGBY.com.au.
“I know we have a lot of work to do in the next 12 months. I have been with Fiji for a little while now and this will be my second World Cup and I know at this point, 12 months out, we are far, far ahead of where we were last time around.
“We see it as a very competitive pool and our ambition is to get out of the pool stages and into the playoffs. It is a very interesting pool, with Georgia a strong tier 2 team as well, and Australia and Wales as well of course.
“So it is important for us to hit the ground running.”
A year out from what he hopes will be one of the major upsets in World Cup history, McKee – an Aussie – spent the week doing World Rugby-led seminars in “enemy” territory; at Rugby Australia headquarters in Sydney.
With Japanese festivities this week marking one year to go, the tournament has become suddenly tangible for coaches and players alike.
Fiji shape as a genuine smoky for the playoffs, on the basis of their very credible performances in 2015.
They only trailed hosts England by seven points in the final quarter, and likewise Wales. The Wallabies’ 28-13 win was one of their least convincing efforts in the tournament.
A decent chunk of those players will be back on deck, said McKee, and Fiji proved their capacity to beat tier 1 sides last year when they beat Scotland in June, a week after the Scots beat Australia.
“We have a good core of players coming back from 2015 and that experience is really invaluable, and probably some lessons learned in that campaign will help us this time around,” McKee said.
“Then we’ll have an injection of young players who are rapidly rising as stars of rugby coming into the group, and then a guy like Semi Radradra. He is a great addition to any team and we are very happy to have him with us for next year.
“So to get that group of talented players together, to spend enough time together and to make sure that they’re ready and firing in 12 months time to play our style of game.”
Asked if he believed he had the team to pull off an upset win over the Wallabies, McKee said: “I think we have got the talented group of players.
“With so many players playing in different professional leagues around the world, there have a lot of experience at playing in the top level,” he said.
“So things that have probably been against us before, with the big step up, it’s not such an issue now.
“For us it is going to be about our preparation … leading up to the World Cup.”
After a dominant NRL career, Radradra has been the talk of European rugby after he was nominated for Top 14 player of the year in his first season, with Toulon.
It was no surprise to McKee.
“Although people know his Parramatta NRL career and see it as him moving across to rugby union, of course he played rugby union all the time when he was growing up and he played sevens for Fiji before he went to the NRL,” McKee said.
“He has really hit the ground running, from his first game for Toulon last season he started to make an impact either as a 13 or a winger. This year for Bordeaux we have seen him in the 13 jersey, which he will probably wear for Fiji.”
McKee isn’t getting carried away with the Wallabies’ current struggles, or slide down the world rankings.
He knows Michael Cheika will have the team prepared by next September.
“Looking at the Rugby Championship campaign now, they’ll be looking for an improved performance leading to next year,” he said.
“But there are probably a number of newer players introduced to that group and 12 months down the line they’ll be much more settled as a team.
“Just as we’ll be working very, very hard to make sure we are 100 percent ready to hit the ground running in that first game, I know the Wallabies and the Wallabies coaching staff will have the same sort of objective.
“So although the Wallabies results haven’t been so good in the past couple of weeks, I don’t think that’s going to be an indicator of how they’ll be at the World Cup.
“They will be a very, very big challenge for us.”