SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — Adaptable to the end, David Pocock will start his last tournament for Australia in an unfamiliar position.
Pocock was selected at No. 6 for the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji in Sapporo on Saturday, meaning one of the most dynamic — and versatile — loose forwards of recent times will have played every position in the back row at World Cups when his test career ends in Japan.
Pocock last played at No. 6 in 2016 but, in a move that underlined his value, coach Michael Cheika made space for Pocock at blindside flank against Fiji. Captain Michael Hooper is at openside flank and Isi Naisarani at No. 8.
Pocock has talisman status for Australia with his unrelenting work around the field and is vital to the Wallabies’ cause, whether at No. 7, No. 8 or No. 6.
If it comes off against Fiji, Pocock and Hooper playing together may be Australia’s blueprint for the rest of the World Cup.
“We have worked on the possibility of this type of combination for the last couple of weeks so we are pretty confident with them working well together,” Cheika said.
The 31-year-old Pocock missed the first half of the season with injury but returned to action in a warmup game against Samoa, when he casually mentioned he’d be giving up international rugby after the World Cup.
Pocock at times rivaled New Zealand’s World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw as the most influential flanker of the last decade and helped Australia to the semifinals in 2011 and the final four years ago.
He’ll have one last shot with the Wallabies, who tend to be contenders at World Cups no matter what their form leading in is like. Australia beat a 14-man New Zealand team last month but lost the return game 36-0 for an immediate reality check.
“They have copped plenty and they are ready for the battle,” Cheika said of his players.
Cheika also picked Christian Leali’ifano at flyhalf against Fiji in favor of Bernard Foley, who was one of the stars of Australia’s run to the final in 2015 but was left out of the 23. Allan Alaalatoa got a starting spot in the front row, adding to his family’s rugby legacy. His father, Vili, played for Western Samoa in the 1991 World Cup.
Reserve props James Slipper and Sekope Kepu have more than 200 test caps combined and are on a heavily experienced bench that includes veteran scrumhalf Will Genia. Genia and Kepu have also said they’ll retire from tests after the World Cup.
Three of the Wallabies’ starters — No. 8 Naisarani, winger Marika Koroibete and inside center Samu Kerevi — were born in Fiji, adding a little extra spice to the encounter. For its part, Fiji has Semi Radradra, who played a rugby league game for Australia in 2016, on the wing and Australia-born Ben Volavola at flyhalf.
Fiji’s starting lineup contains three players who won gold medals when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But Fiji’s 15-man game, once given little attention because of the success of the sevens squad, is on its way up too after a landmark win over France in Paris last year.
Fiji will likely need to upset either Australia or Six Nations champion Wales in its last pool game to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
“We have high ambitions in this World Cup,” Fiji coach John McKee said. “We know we have big challenges with big teams in our pool but it’s a great first match for us. A lot of test match rugby is run in the close quarters and it’s going to be a big game for both teams at the gain line and in both attack and defense.
“For us it’ll be a game of limited opportunities and we have to make sure that we nail opportunities and turn them into points.”
Australia: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, James O’Connor, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Leali’ifano, Nic White; Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper, David Pocock, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Allan Alaalatoa, Tolu Latu, Scott Sio. Reserves: Jordan Uelese, James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Will Genia, Matt Toomua, Dane Haylett-Petty.
Fiji: Kini Murimurivalu, Josua Tuisova, Waisea Nayacalevu, Levani Botia, Semi Radradra, Ben Volavola, Frank Lomani; Viliame Mata, Peceli Yato, Dominiko Waqaniburotu, Leone Nakarawa, Tevita Cavubati, Peni Ravai, Samuel Matavesi, Campese Ma’afu. Reserves: Tuvere Vugakoto, Eroni Mawi, Manasa Saulo, Tevita Ratuva, Mosese Voka, Nikola Matawalu, Alivereti Veitokani, Vereniki Goneva.
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