The Rugby League World Cup kicks off on Saturday in Cardiff with England taking on Australia. The Kangaroos are firm favourites but go into the tournament having lost their grip on the trophy to New Zealand in the 2008 final in Brisbane. Before that shock defeat, the men in green and gold had won the previous six tournaments and an expectant Australian audience will accept nothing less than their boys returning home with the Rugby League World Cup trophy.
The fourteenth renewal will see the sport showcased across the United Kingdom, Ireland and France, throwing up some interesting fixtures. A strong Fijian presence in Rochdale, for example, has led the organisers to stage their game against Ireland in the Pennine town. Similarly, the heroic figure of Stanley Gene, who joined Hull KR in 1995 and has remained in the city ever since, encouraged the organisers to schedule Papua New Guinea’s tie against France in the north-east.
Keep an eye out for the most expensive player in the world: full-back Sam Tomkins
In an attempt to avoid numerous one-sided contests early in the tournament, the tournament is organised into a lop-sided pool system. Group A (Australia, England, Fiji and Ireland) and Group B (New Zealand, France, Papua New Guinea and Samoa) will see three of their four teams qualify for the quarter finals, whilst only the winner of Groups C (Scotland, Tonga and Italy) and D (Wales, Cook Islands and the USA) will progress through. This system, which worked reasonably effectively in the 2008 tournament, should (in theory) allow the four strongest teams to reach the semi-finals having played some competitive fixtures earlier in the group stage.
The Big 3
Australia are the team to beat, with a team full of State of Origin players used to competing at the highest level every week in the NRL. Their spine is particularly strong, with full-back Billy Slater, half-backs Jonathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, and hooker Cameron Smith arguably the best in the world in their respective positions. Murmuring s of an internal rift between the competing Origin states suggests all is not rosy within the camp though, and their wingers are a comparatively weak point.
England would have been confident before Saturday’s shock friendly loss to Italy and Gareth Hock’s subsequent removal, but a chance to refocus minds within the squad may not be a bad thing for coach Steve McNamara. Their biggest weakness is a lack of world-class talent in the halfbacks, but this is balanced out by a stunning front row and an NRL contingent including the three Burgess brothers. Keep an eye out too for the most expensive player in the world; full-back Sam Tomkins.
New Zealand are reigning champions and arguably have a stronger squad than in 2008. Boosted by the return of cross-code international superstar Sonny Bill Williams from a self-imposed leave of absence, they appear to be in good shape to mount another challenge to Australian dominancy. Expect the gigantic figure of Manu Vatuvei to finish anything that makes its way out to his wing.
Samoa are the team most likely to cause an upset and will be looking at the semi-finals as a reasonable target. An intimidating forward pack are joined by an elusive backline, where Canberra Raiders full-back Anthony Milford provides the X factor.
The continuing development of Catalan Dragons has caused a resurgence of interest of the game in France, where their side, led by the mercurial Thomas Bosc, will also be targeting the semis. The key game for the Les Chanticleers will be against Papua New Guinea, a nation obsessed with Rugby League for whom Menzie ‘The Jukebox’ Yere will be looking to put on the hits.
Fiji will be more than content to repeat their showing in the previous tournament, where a fairy-tale run saw them reach the semi-finals. However the squad is much changed and they will rely on the individual brilliance of star names such as the electric Akuila Uate.
In terms of the other sides, the home nations will probably struggle despite home advantage. Each have some Super League stars such as Man of Steel Danny Brough, Wigan’s Pat Richards and Craig Kopczak but a lack of depth should confine them to the group stage. The USA, Cook Islands, Tonga and Italy will searching for a quarter-final birth, with Tonga and Cook Islands the most likely to progress.
Australia are big odds-on favourites, with a general 4/11 available. It’s New Zealand, however, who provide more appeal at 4/1 – whilst both England and Australia appear to have internal issues threatening to disrupt their progress, the Kiwis are a solid unit with game-winning potential across the park.
The stand-out bet is Brett Morris to finish as top try-scorer at 9/1 with Ladbrokes and BetVictor. The Australian winger has been prolific in NRL for a number of seasons and has an outstanding centre inside him in the shape of Michael Jennings.