Thursday, June 13, 2024
HomesportAustralia’s Mark Nawaqanitawase soars into the limelight at World Cup

Australia’s Mark Nawaqanitawase soars into the limelight at World Cup

SAINT-ETIENNE – Australia winger Mark Nawaqanitawase celebrated his 23rd birthday at a French primary school in Saint-Etienne on Monday morning, with the gaggle of children mobbing him a reflection of his growing profile after an outstanding Rugby World Cup opener.

His name was on many lips after his eye-catching performance as the Wallabies beat Georgia 35-15 last Saturday, even if the pronunciation of it (Na-wang-a-nee-ta-wa-say) is still a daunting prospect for many.

Pacey, hungry for work and with a prodigious boot that he illustrated, Nawaqanitawase scored one of Australia’s four tries in the comfortable victory at the Stade de France.

It is in the air that the tall outside back really catches the eye, however, offering a constant threat under the high ball that resembles that of former Wallaby Israel Folau.

But Nawaqanitawase insisted that he was not about to get carried away by the attention of French schoolchildren or rugby pundits alike.

“I’m really enjoying my footy. I’m in France playing footy, it’s pretty cool,” he told reporters after receiving a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday!” from the students of Ecole Elementaire Molina.

“I’m just trying to have fun and obviously win some games and stuff like that. Just trying to do me.”

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Nawaqanitawase is a lock-in on the right wing for Australia’s second Pool C match against Fiji in Saint-Etienne on Sunday, which has a personal meaning for him and six other members of the team because of their Fijian heritage.

In fact, but for his decision to throw in his lot with Australia in 2022, he might be playing against the Wallabies in the white shirt of the Pacific Island nation.

“For a split second, I was thinking of going down that path but I guess I’m grateful for how things have turned out,” said the Sydney-born winger, who has Italian and Fijian parents.

“(Sunday) will be a special moment for myself and the family.

“And it’ll be a very exciting match, I think.”

Like Nawaqanitawase, flanker Langi Gleeson – who was also born in Sydney and has maternal links to Fiji – is having mixed feelings.

“My family backs them (the Fiji team). I don’t know who they’re going to support this week,” he said.

“It’s probably my second team. My family are big Fijian rugby supporters.

“But it means everything for my family (for me to be playing here). Growing up, I always wanted to be a Wallaby.

“I didn’t think I’d get there. It’s all been a blur, this year and last year.”

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For now, the spotlight is on Nawaqanitawase, who made his Test debut against Italy only in last November’s tour of Europe, scoring a brace against Pool C rivals Wales in his second Test.

His continued good form was one of the bright spots of Australia’s five-match losing streak in 2023 which they snapped against the Georgians at the weekend.

Having got that monkey off their back, Nawaqanitawase thought the youthful Wallabies squad would not change their approach too much for the Fiji match.

“We’ll want to tie them up and make sure that we’re connected because they’re going bring a lot of mystery – they can do anything out of nothing,” he said.

“(But) we’ve got to back ourselves in what we do. We’ve got things to improve on… and, for the most part, we’re just worried about ourselves.”

It is not just about youth, either. James Slipper, the most experienced player in Australia’s World Cup squad, could be in contention to play against Fiji.

The loosehead prop, who has won 131 caps, was unavailable for the victory over Georgia with a foot injury, but assistant coach Dan Palmer thought he and tighthead Pone Fa’amausili would be back sooner rather than later.

“I’d expect them to be there or thereabouts this week,” he said.

“Having that experience come back is always going to be a positive.” REUTERS

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