On Friday, Rugby League’s signature international tournament reignites, the World Cup. The showpiece event will consist of 28 matches, with 14 sides battling to hoist aloft the Paul Barriere Trophy. Barriere was the President of the French Federation of Rugby League and the driving force of the maiden League World Cup, the first of either code, in 1954. With a trio of host nations – Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – entwined with the sport, it promises to be a scintillating spectacle. But has the time arrived where England are expected to deliver?
As mentioned the World Cup will consist of 28 matches split between the three hosts. Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, with a capacity of 52,000 will host the opening fixture of Australia and England as well as the final. Groups A and B possess 4 teams in which 3 can progress; whilst Groups C and D obtain 3 sides, where only the winners qualify for the quarter-finals. The final on December 2nd is followed by the Women’s World Cup final, an admirable motive to promote the women’s game. You’ll have to be an early-bird to catch the action, kick off times range from 4-10am GMT. The 2017 showpiece has a hard act to follow; the 2013 World Cup which took place in England, Wales, Ireland and France attracted the largest audience in the history of the event – 458.483 – compared with the 293,442 which attended the 2008 tournament Down Under. In England and Australia’s Group A, it is advisable that you finish first, as both the semi-final and final take place in Brisbane. The runner up has the possibility of having to battle New Zealand, in their own backyard in the semi’s.
Is this England’s time?
England’s captain Sam Burgess seems hysterical about the tournament. “How can you not be excited by this opportunity”, he told The Guardian. Surprising rhetoric, considering Australia have won 10 out of 14 editions of the tournament. However, England’s strength in-depth has provoked coach Wayne Bennett to omit Sam Tomkins from selection. Burgess heads a contingent of English players in Australia’s National Rugby League – where Gareth Widdop was this season’s second highest points scorer. Castleford’s Luke Gale was the top points scorer in Super League and assisted 20 tries, culminating in being named Super League’s Man of Steel for 2017. Considering Wigan and Warrington also triumphed in the 2017 World Club Series, now more than ever it seems possible that England can topple Australian dominance.
England have never been victorious as a sole nation in a World Cup. In fact the last time a side from these Isles won was Great Britain, 45 years ago. England have not beaten Australia since 2006. If England are to become Rugby League’s international pinnacle, they will need to build lessons on the heartbreaking 2013 semi-final last gasp defeat to New Zealand, as well as the embarrassment of not making the final of last year’s Four Nations on home soil.
The Kangaroo King
If you bet with your head over your heart, Australia are the overwhelming favourites for the tournament. Reigning World Champions after annihilating New Zealand 34-2, as well as victory in the 2016 Four Nations against the same opponent puts the Aussies on a gold and green pedestal above all contestants. Swansongs of legends like Billy Slater (winner of the Clive Churchill medal in Melbourne’s 2017 NRL Grand Final victory), coupled with the vigorous Australian talent such as top NRL point scorer Nathan Cleary, promises to omit emotionally-charged performances by the hosts, which could project the Kangaroos to another gear. Frightening.
Australia haven’t always had the World Cup their own way. In 2008, Australia were again the host, but New Zealand turned up, put the Foster’s on hold on took home the trophy. The Kiwis, like England are a dark horse trying to shorten the lengths between themselves and the Australian steed. Half-back Shaun Johnson will be ladened with the dreams of a nation, though being 2014 World Player of the Year, he has the pedigree. Tonga have propelled in an upward trajectory on the international stage due to a change in eligibility rules allowing them to gain another nation’s talent, such as Kiwi Jason Taumalolo. Home Nations Wales and Scotland have also been tipped for improved performances.
After their abhorrent display at last year’s Four Nations, England coach Wayne Bennett laid into his side, stating that there is a lot more to come of his squad. However Bennett, an Australian himself will see difficulty in usurping his homeland to the title. The world is expecting Mal Meninga’s Kangaroos to deliver an early Christmas present. England will do all they can to become this year’s Scrooge.
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