SAPPORO, Japan, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Lots of loud, raucous laughter boomed around the Sapporo Dome on Friday — Fiji were in town and they were there to have some fun.
Warming up for their final training session before their Pool D clash against Australia on Saturday, a semi-organised hybrid game of touch rugby and rugby league broke out.
The rare dropped ball resulted in more laughter and some jovial pushing and shoving until the vagaries of assistant coach Tabai Matson’s whistle signalled a change of possession.
There was more laughter, but fewer dropped balls.
Attention was turning to their job on Saturday, to upset the Wallabies and push on and become the first Pacific-Island nation to make the quarter-finals since they reached the last eight at the 2007 tournament in France.
“If we can win tomorrow then that does make the job easier, but it’s not the end of the day either,” Fiji coach John McKee told reporters on Friday when asked about his stated goal of reaching the knockout phase.
“All of our focus for our players now is on their performance tomorrow and their game against Australia.”
While Fiji have not beaten Australia since 1954, they have risen to number nine in the world under McKee and are being tipped by pundits as the most likely tier-two nation to cause upsets at the tournament.
They also have a settled and balanced squad that includes 25 European-based professionals. That creates competition, which can only help the players’ mentality, added McKee.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “If you look around the team ... there is a lot of competition for all spots.
“That brings out the best in our players and means that our performance improves.”
McKee acknowledged that one of the issues the Fijians have traditionally faced has been to temper their instinctive exuberance and desire to keep the ball alive at all costs, while also battling to maintain patience and discipline.
“It has been about finding the balance of building pressure and playing test match rugby with the players’ talent and ability to run with the ball,” McKee said.
“Our players understand much more of what is required in test match rugby now.
“They recognise that it is about knuckling down and doing the hard work and if we do that well, we can create for ourselves some good opportunities.”
The team have strengthened their set piece and produced a consistent run of results against tier-two nations yet captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu admitted it was at times difficult to rein in their natural exuberance.
“It’s still a work on for us,” he said. “It can still hurt us in some games so we have been working hard on it at training.
“It’s something we will be watching out for tomorrow ... and the guys know what is expected of them.”
Editing by Toby Davis