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Australia survive Fiji scare on showdown Saturday at Rugby World Cup

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, is presented jerseys of Japan’s rugby national team by Japan’s captain Michael Leitch during a courtesy call by World Rugby officials as part of the Webb Ellis trophy tour ahead of the Rugby World Cup, at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Issei Kato/Pool Photo via AP)

TOKYO, Sept 21, 2019 (AFP) – Australia survived an almighty scare to beat Fiji 39-21 as defending champions New Zealand prepared to take on South Africa in a day of heavyweight showdowns at the Rugby World Cup on Saturday.

Fiji, putting in some thunderous hits, led 21-12 early in the second half before replacement scrum-half Will Genia inspired a revival, leading the Aussies to a bonus-point win.

Tolu Latu crashed over twice, and Samu Serevi and Marika Koroibete also crossed in the second half following scores by Michael Hooper and Reece Hodge in a helter-skelter first period.

“They’re such a dangerous team, we knew that very well,” said Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. “It’s what we expected (but) we probably didn’t expect to be so far behind.

“We made a few errors that let them into it but we recomposed ourselves, went back to basics and were able to get it done.”

Next up on day two, after Japan’s tournament-opening 30-10 win over Russia on Friday, France play Argentina in a closely matched game that neither side can afford to lose in Pool C.

But the day’s undoubted highlight is the last match when the All Blacks rumble into action against their fiercest rivals, a Springboks side which held them 16-16 when they last met in July.

While questions have been raised about All Blacks, now without their long-time world number one ranking, the Springboks are hotly tipped after a revival under coach Rassie Erasmus.

Ahead of their meeting in Yokohama, which many believe could be a preview of the November 2 final at the same venue, both sides will be keenly aware that no team has lost in the pool stages and gone on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

New Zealand captain Kieran Read was in no doubt about the importance of the game, which could go a long way to deciding whether the All Blacks win an unprecedented third straight title and fourth overall.

“South Africa in our opening game of the tournament is going to be one of the bigger games you play over your career,” said the 122-Test veteran, who played in both the 2011 and 2015 World Cup finals.

– Emotional tribute –

South Africa, led by their first black World Cup captain, Siya Kolisi, will play in shirts bearing an image of Chester Williams, the only black member of the Springboks’ 1995 World Cup-winning team who died this month at 49.

“From the opening match, the most important thing for us is clinching victory, the World Cup itself, so we’re confident,” Sports Minister Nathi Mthethwa told AFP.

“It means a lot. A win for South Africa here in Japan is a victory for the whole of the country, especially in the project of uniting our people.”

France enter the tournament under the radar after a lean spell but the three-time finalists have shown encouraging signs since Fabien Galthie joined Jacques Brunel’s backroom staff.

They also look set for a difficult start against Mario Ledesma’s Pumas, the bulk of whom play for the Jaguares team that reached this year’s Super Rugby final.

“We know the qualities of Argentina,” said Brunel. “But we have prepared well and we’re going to give it everything. The first game is key — it sets the tone.”

Also on Saturday, tournament organisers warned teams about possible disruption from an approaching typhoon and closed two fanzones in southwestern Japan as a precaution.