Australia's force of nature restless to break shackles against England

Lote Tuqiri is under curfew for an ill-timed drinking session but the Wallaby wing is aiming to dish out punishment of his own in tomorrow's quarter-final
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lote Tuqiri is living under curfew. Unfortunately for the England back division, who square up to the celebrated Fijian-born wing in tomorrow afternoon's World Cup quarter-final at Stade Vélodrome, the terms and conditions imposed by the Wallaby hierarchy after an off-limits drinking session in Brisbane last month permit him to leave the team hotel during hours of daylight. The disruption to Tuqiri's routine – "It means I have dinner a little later than usual, but that's about it," he said yesterday – has been far too slight for the champions' liking. They would have preferred the Australians to lock him in his room and throw the key over the harbour wall.

It is hardly the first time he has brushed up against the suits and blazers back home, but he is not the sort to give a damn. There is something of the force of nature about him, something of the life less ordinary. The likes of John O'Neill frequently feel driven to remind him of the rules and regulations to which he is subject – "Being a Wallaby is an honour, not a right; these individuals are looked up to by the community and there are high standards they are expected to meet," the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union pronounced during the latest episode – but Tuqiri likes to play it his way. He did, after all, enjoy a previous sporting existence in rugby league, which embraced professionalism decades before union and is no longer spooked by outbreaks of non-conformity.

Who is to say Tuqiri's way is not the right way? The statistics suggest there is at least some merit in his approach to the 15-man game. Before the start of this competition, he had made 53 appearances for his country in the four years since he crossed the divide and scored 27 tries along the way. On his first World Cup start, against the hapless Namibians in 2003, he registered a hat-trick; the following year, he managed 10 in 12 matches – a run of fixtures that included such soft-option opponents as New Zealand, South Africa and France. In 2005, he put four tries past Italy. In 2006, he scored three in as many Tests against the All Blacks.

Judged against this deeply impressive measure, he has been just a little quiet here: indeed, he is losing 7-0 to his fellow wing Drew Mitchell on the tournament try-list. Yet Mitchell could have been 17-0 up and still not pinched Tuqiri's place for tomorrow's tie. Unusually tall for a wing at 6ft 3in – a height advantage that allowed him to pluck Stephen Larkham's kick from the air and land the first blow against England in the last World Cup final – he can do a turn in the centre without thinking twice. This flexibility has granted the Wallaby coaches the luxury of packing their bench with forwards for this contest.

"Do I mind drawing a blank in the pool stage? Not at all," he insisted. "It's a 'so what?' thing as far as I'm concerned, because there are plenty of other people scoring and we're winning our games. If I get one against England, then sweet – I grew up watching England and Australia playing each other and I love it when I get the chance to participate myself. But you never know what a big Test like this will come down to in terms of scoring. It might be about field goals, in which case I won't be on the scoreboard."

Tuqiri refuses to join the likes of O'Neill, that enthusiastic guardian of Australian sporting morals, in baiting England with half-baked insults. At the same time, he is reluctant to portray the old enemy as something they are not. "Australia-England games are always nice and tough," he said, "but I don't look on this as anything out of the ordinary, or see it in the light of what happened in 2003. It's a stepping stone for us, a game we have to win to progress to the next stage of the tournament. While we've had a few good victories over them back home, they've been sending second teams down to our place in recent years. This will be their best team, so it's different. There again, we're pretty happy with the way we're playing and if we do our jobs..."

So was he being serious, rather than playful, when he described Jason Robinson, his fellow league convert, as "England's only world-class back"? (What, no Jonny?) "I said what I said and I'll stick by it," he responded. "Look, Jason is getting on a bit, but he'll make every effort to go all the way through this tournament, which he says will be his last. I admire him. He runs the ball at people with real vigour and he has that amazing agility. He can have a wall built against him and still get behind it. I don't think I've seen a bloke pop through defences in the way he does." Was he surprised to see Robinson's name on the team sheet, given the hamstring injury he suffered in the heavy defeat by South Africa? "Not at all. He wouldn't want to let down his mates. He's not the selfish type."

Strange to relate, Tuqiri, who pronounces his christian name "Lortay" rather than "Loti", did not take up competitive sport until he was midway through his teens. Born in the village of Namatakula, an hour's drive from the Fijian capital Suva, the church played a bigger part in his upbringing than anything involving a rugby ball; indeed, his father, Tukula, is a deacon in the Assembly of God. When his son showed some fairly startling talent as a league player, Tuqiri Snr encouraged him to try his luck in the big country across the water. Some luck. Between 1999 and 2002, he played almost a hundred first-grade matches for the Brisbane Broncos and won international honours with both Fiji and Australia.

Unsurprisingly, he admits to having some sympathy for another of the cross-code brigade, the England centre Andy Farrell, in his on-going search for acceptance in the union game. "I haven't followed events too closely," he said, "and I don't know if what's happening is down to the league-union relationship over there, but I can empathise with Farrell. I know this much: in league, he was a pretty sharp player – very strong and equipped with skills that maybe haven't been seen since he came across to union. Give him time, I say."

Having decided against making what would have been a highly lucrative return to league – "Winning a World Cup was one of the big factors behind my decision to change codes in the first place, and the defeat in the final last time was one of the big factors behind my decision to stay," he explained – Tuqiri is happy to give himself time. He has just turned 28 and has every chance of making the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, where he would certainly expect to be joined by the new talk of Wallaby town, Berrick Barnes.

"I think we're all really comfortable with Berrick," he said of the 21-year-old outside-half, who travelled here as a very definite No 2 to the ultra-sophisticated Larkham but has been running the show successfully since his elder and better developed a knee infection thought to be connected to a bout of pre-tournament keyhole surgery. "He's more malleable than Stephen – in other words, we can tell him to do things and expect them to be done – but he has a good head on his shoulders. If we weren't confident about working with him, the coaches wouldn't pick the guy."

When Barnes appeared in public yesterday, he was calmness personified. "It's a bit surreal, being involved in this game, but when you find yourself in unknown waters, you sink or swim," he said. There may come a moment tomorrow when the youngster finds himself drowning in a sea of Jonny Wilkinson kicks, at which point Australia's most threatening runner will offer his services as a human lifeboat. "I suppose England might kick the ball at us," Tuqiri acknowledged with a smile, "and if they do, we backs might get to see a bit of it." He seemed rather excited by the prospect. More excited, certainly, than by the thought of another night indoors.

Comments