Pocock, Hooper combine in Wallabies' World Cup opener v Fiji
SAPPORO, Japan (AP) — David Pocock and Michael Hooper will combine in the backrow for the first time this year when two-time champion Australia opens its Rugby World Cup campaign against Fiji on Saturday.
Pocock has missed most of the season because of injury but returned in a warmup match against Samoa and did enough to earn his place in the backrow at the expense of Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. He'll start at No. 6 for the first time since 2016, and will become the fourth Wallaby to start at No. 6, 7 and 8 during the World Cup.
Hooper will start on the openside and Salakaia-Loto is expected to come in off the bench. Two of the best openside flankers in the game, Pocock and Hooper have regularly combined in the backrow to give Australia speed to the breakdown.
Head coach Michael Cheika picked Christian Leali'ifano at flyhalf 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 squad to face Fiji.
"We are hungry to play our best rugby," Cheika said. "We want to do two things — our best to win the tournament, and we want to show young people in Australia how beautiful the game can be."
Allan Alaalatoa got a starting spot in the front row for Australia, 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 also includes veteran scrumhalf Will Genia.
Three of the Wallabies' starters — No. 8 Isi Naisarani, winger Marika Koroibete and inside center Samu Kerevi — were born in Fiji.
The Fiji starting lineup contains three players who won gold medals when rugby sevens made its Olympic debut at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, with lock Leone Nakarawa, backrower Viliame Mata and winger Josua Tuisova all in the 15.
Nakarawa, and Campese Ma'afu are two of the four players in the Fiji starting lineup who are starting in their third World Cup.
Former rugby league star Semi Radradra earned a starting spot on the wing, with Australia-born Ben Volavola starting at flyhalf.
Fiji head coach John McKee said there's a strong sense of belief within his squad, which is aiming to upset either Australia or Six Nations champion Wales to earn a spot in the quarterfinals.
"We have high ambitions in this World Cup. We know we have big challenges with big teams in our pool but it's a great first match for us," McKee said. "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 Allalatoa, 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.