All the talk has been of eligibility and defection as Pacific Island players give Australia and New Zealand a taste of their own medicine and choose their heritage over money and tell the big boys to shove it and I for one love it! It’s given this great celebration of rugby league some real depth and plenty of media traction. Fans just want to see the best players on the field and there are some brilliantly skilled superstars – share the love, who cares who they play for? Just enjoy the show! Let the games begin!! Australia is the team to beat and open the tournament against their old foes.
Australia v England
The RLWC opener pits the top two sides in Group A and the two that I believe will face off in the final on December 2. This adds extra spice into what is shaping as a tasty match. This game is all about belief. Australia are never short of confidence and with their history as the dominant force in rugby league and the overall strength of their squad you can see why. England have lacked belief and composure in the key moments against the big guns Australia and New Zealand of late, exposed brutally in last year’s Four Nations and it’s this the master coach Wayne Bennett needs to instil in his men. Make no mistake England are not far off and Bennett knows this, he just needs his Englishmen to have faith.
Bennett is the man manager extraordinaire and has already taken the pressure off his troops by conceding a close loss is tolerable, it’s the performance that matters. The RLWC format means England are a shoe in to progress and Bennett is aiming for England to peak in the final not Friday. Australia has a massive advantage over England in possessing the NRL premiership winning Melbourne Storm’s spine at 1, 7 and 9. The Big 3: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have the killer combination ready to roll as every other nation strives to build a style and rhythm the Kangaroos have raring to go from game one. The key for England is to limit their time and ability to control the tempo of the game which brings the forward clashes under the microscope and here is England’s strength.
An NRL toughened pack featuring Sam Burgess, James Graham and Elliott Whitehead with Josh Hodgson pulling the strings from hooker is the ‘Wall of White’ pathway to an upset or to keep Uncle Wayne happy, at the very least push the Aussies and rattle their cage along the way. Off the back of the pack, England has excellent halves in Luke Gale and the St George Illawarra Dragons wizard Gareth Widdop. Gale must back himself and take on the Aussies bringing his awesome Super League form to the world stage. Widdop cannot do it on his own against the Kangaroos well-drilled defence.
Australia have match winners spread across the park but are vulnerable especially out wide. No Jonathan Thurston, no Greg Inglis and no Matt Scott, is the well-worn theme of 2017 but that’s a lot of international experience that leaves a gaping hole. Australia has depth but let’s face it, it’s like Robbie Williams doing a Pavarotti tribute. Sure he’ll put on a great show but won’t hit the high notes with the same impact. Robbie may make the Earth move for some but his voice won’t bring people to tears and shatter windows like Luciano did!
Expect England to play with controlled aggression led by Slammin’ Sam Burgess whose battle against the Klemminator, David Klemmer, will rock the Rectangular Stadium in Melbourne into a rhombus but the fists of fury must be pocketed unlike last time they locked horns. Discipline is the key. If England lose their rag and give away penalties and territory (are you listening Sam?), Cameron Smith will toy with them and cut them to shreds. Watch for Billy Slater slicing through a tiring English ruck, especially in the last quarter. England’s midfield defence better be tighter than Nikki Sixx’s leather cock rock trousers or the Roos will make them look like a motley crew. On the flipside, the little English gem James Roby is a danger man off the bench. Australia has a huge forward pack that makes Mal Meninga resemble Frankie Dettori and cagey old Clint Bennett will shift Hodgson to the backrow and unleash Roby, looking for mobility and speed to pierce the Kangaroos plodders up the middle.
The Australian outside backs are an area England will try to exploit, Josh Dugan and Dane Gagai can be liabilities in defence and England will target them all night. Benny’s Broncos playbook will be run all game, cut out passes to wingers with fullback Jonny Lomax playing the Darius Boyd role and short kicks to the in-goal building pressure. England must do all the one percenters, strong kick chase, desperate goal line defence and take any sniff of opportunity to have a chance. The bookmakers have the Kangaroos strong favourites but I think it’ll be close. North Queensland’s Michael Morgan brilliant NRL playoff form has won him the race to join the Storm spine and it’s this super combination and the relentlessly powerful backrow and bench that will just keep coming at England that will get Australia home. England will build through this tournament and if they can open by pushing the Roos the confidence and belief gained will make them a major threat at the business end of proceedings.
Australia by 10
Papua New Guinea v Wales
All the pressure is on the Kumuls. The success of the PNG Hunters in taking out the QLD Intrust Super Cup, combined with the addition of NRL stars such as Nene Macdonald and skipper David Mead and playing in front of raucous home support has PNG expecting to win this match and top the group. The sting in the tail is Wales can use this to their advantage. If they hold the Kumuls in the opening stanza, the pressure valve could burst and force mistakes which the Welsh can capitalise on. This is where the QLD competition experience kicks in. The Boas brothers, Watson and star five-eighth Ase will control the game and settle any nerves, they didn’t panic in the Intrust Super Cup Grand Final leaving it late to score the famous win. If the PNG forwards gain ascendancy, the star-studded backs have the talent to put on a show that will have Port Moresby piled high with people peeking from every vantage point. Wales have a decent squad and a lot of pressure will be placed on their forwards led by Craig Kopczak to meet the combative Kumuls head on otherwise the scoreboard could get ugly. The Kumuls have picked four hookers in their 17 with two on the bench in Kurt Baptiste and James Segeyaro so expect PNG to run the Welsh ragged in the stifling humidity. The Kumuls should have too much firepower and class and send this rugby league mad country into raptures.
Papua New Guinea by 16
New Zealand v Samoa
What a battering the Kiwis have taken in the lead up to this World Cup. An exodus of players choosing their island of their forefathers over the two NZ islands has weakened the Kiwi squad but strengthened the resolve. David Kidwell also lost his assistant coach, Garth Brennan to the Gold Coast Titans last week, he just can’t take a trick. Kidwell will probably lose his pass on the way to the game and be denied access to the ground. Despite all the drama this is still a strong Kiwi side with enough talent to make the semi-finals. Kiwi talisman Shaun Johnson has called for exciting rugby league and all neutrals and league lovers hope the Kiwis can back it up, Johnson in full flight is one of the game’s best sights. Kodi Nikorima has surprisingly won the number 6 jersey over Te Maire Martin but will do a good job assisting Johnson. Thomas Leuluai is a great choice at dummy half and his experience and ball playing adds to the exciting skilful mix. Samoa have slipped under the World Cup radar as Tonga has taken the headlines but this is a very strong squad. The Canberra Raiders duo of Josh Papalii and Junior Paulo will lead the way up front and off their momentum fellow Raider Joey Leilua is the danger man who can spring a Samoan upset. The halves could be the Samoan weakness. Joseph Paulo and Ben Roberts have been handed the reins to steer this impressive outfit around but their kicking game could be the Achilles heel. It is imperative New Zealand start this World Cup well to build up to the huge clash with Tonga and get the rugby union mad locals into this tournament and the media talking league. With a fair share of possession and territory Shaun Johnson will take control of this match and look to Jordan Rapana to continue his season of excellence, back him to find the stripe, he’d love to get one up over his great mate Joey Leilua. The Kiwis should be too strong and get the victory but not before an Earth shuddering battle.
New Zealand by 10
Fiji v USA
On paper this should be an easy win for the Fijians, in fact I’ll carve it stone – Fiji will win. Fiji have an excellent mix of strength, skill and speed that should account for a USA side that will give it everything but that won’t be enough. Fiji coach Mick Potter is so confident with his squad he believes they can win the tournament! I’ll grow a comb over and eat my first born raw if Fiji win this World Cup. They must be giving Mick the special brew Kava. From little things, big things grow… let’s just win this opener hey Mick! Maybe Fiji must have impressed on the training paddock because in their warm up games against the Kangaroos and PNG they not only lost, they didn’t score a point. Against the USA though, Fiji will score plenty of points. A powerful pack starring the menacing Ashton Sims, with Api Koroisau blasting off this momentum out of dummy half combining with a hopefully inspired, fit and in form Jarryd Hayne at five-eighth and all topped off with spectacular speed to burn out wide in Akuila Uate and Suliasi Vunivalu, Fiji should win in a canter. The USA’s main problem is trying to gain combination from a squad garnered from all corners of the league world. Centre and former NRL player Junior Vaivai is the cousin of Hollywood star and former pro-wrestler, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and the Americans may need to slip The Rock onto the field to perform a suplex on Hayne to give them a fighting chance as for most of this game the USA will be on the ropes copping a pounding. They will improve as the tournament develops but this will be a tough initiation to the RLWC 2017.
Fiji by 26
Ireland v Italy
The Sunday double header at Barlow Park in Cairns begins with what could end up an extremely close tussle. Italy will be expected to win with a very strong forward pack featuring Parramatta Eels pair Daniel Alvaro and the Eels player of the year Nathan Brown, who NSW Origin selectors will monitor closely to see how he takes to international football. The words duck and water come to mind, Brown will lap it up. Paul Vaughan and skipper Mark Minichiello add to the Italian power but don’t expect the Irish to back down. They have a pair of rugged Saints in their pack in Kyle Amor and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Super League battle hardened who will take it to their more fancied rivals and look to do a job on the Italians. The spines are fascinating, the Wakefield Trinity duo of Scott Grix and Liam Finn are joined by just about the toughest nut in the Cup, Mickey McIlorum. The Italians will know they’ve been in a battle after dealing with Mic Mac’s Paddy whacks! The man can hit hard. One player in his sights will be the Italian youngster with rugby league royal blood running through his veins. Jack Johns, son of Matty Johns, has been tasked with leading the Italians around in the key position of halfback, a big ask of the Newcastle Knights Under 20s star but he is a talent and will have a man at the opposite end of his career by his side in Terry Campese now plying his trade in the Canberra competition. The jewel in the crown for the Italians and the man who could be the difference is new Sydney Roosters recruit, NSW Origin fullback and Kangaroos reject James Tedesco. Teddy has a point to prove and his blistering pace could punish the Irish, who will give a good account of themselves but just fall short.
Italy by 12
France v Lebanon
This is probably the hardest game to pick in week one. France have the benefit of playing more internationals together as Lebanon have added a smattering of NRL stars to the group that got them to this point. The key match-up is the battle of the five-eighths, France’s St Helens Theo Fages and Lebanon’s Parramatta Eel Mitchell Moses. Both are talented and exciting players that could determine the outcome on their own. The forward battle will offer these classy players the room to strut their stuff and while Lebanon feature an all-NRL front row of Tim Mannah, Michael Lichaa and Alex Twal, the French will back themselves to hold the Lebanese and use their pacey three-quarters to get them a vital victory. Playing in Australia, Lebanon will feel at home enjoying huge support from the local community and it may be enough to inspire them to surge to a famous win. Expect Michael Lichaa to run often like he did for the Bulldogs after belatedly being unleashed by dumped coach Des Hasler. Robbie Farah will run the show at halfback and love wearing the number 7 and having the responsibility, he’s always fancied himself as a ball player and can now officially do it! Mitchell Moses ended the season in excellent form for the Eels and if the Lebanese forwards can do their job, Moses and Lichaa can spring an upset, but the French connection through their Catalans Dragons combinations and Super League experience should be enough to squeeze France home.
France by 4
Scotland v Tonga
The final game of week one and the second game of the Cairns doubleheader should be an absolute belter. Tonga have been the talk of the tournament build up with Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo’s so-called defections from Australia and New Zealand respectively soaking up all the back page ink. Tonga are everyone’s pick to make a big run at this World Cup and when you look at the players who didn’t make the final 17 you can see why. When a side has Joe Ofahengaue, Solomone Kate and David Fusitu’a watching from the bleachers, you know there’s some talent on the paddock. The Tongan side is a beauty and the expectations are justified, from a huge and skilful forward pack starring Fifita and Taumalolo, the match of any in the tournament to the three-quarters featuring a back five who can outrun and outplay all comers. The major weakness is the halves and there is plenty of pressure on Tuimoala Lolohea and Ata Hingano to control the play and deliver quality last play options. This is the area Scotland have a huge advantage. Braveheart inspirational skipper Danny Brough has the best kicking game in the competition bar none and he will be the focal point of all the Scottish play. Halfback Danny Addy must offer a second string to the Scottish playmaking bow to complement Brough as the Tongans will zero in on the Braveheart’s talisman and introduce him to the North Queensland turf at every opportunity. With Will Hopoate and Daniel Tupou safe under kicks, poor old Manu Vatuvei will be the target of Brough’s deadly boot and it will rain bombs on Big Manu all game. Manu can be as scratchy as a flea-bitten dog under the high ball and it could be car crash TV, I love Manu and I’ll back him to come out on top, he’s a champion! The pressure of being favourites could weigh heavy on the Tongans and Scotland will come out strong to attempt to put the Tongans on the back foot but a backrow featuring Manu Ma’u, Sika Manu and Jason Taumalolo should be too strong for the Scots no matter how brave they are. If Scotland’s fullback Lewis Tierney has black rings around his eyes it will be from lack of sleep as he’ll be having nightmares starring Taumalolo running straight at home in Beast Mode. This is a quality Tongan side and they should open this RLWC with a win over an outclassed Scotland.
Tonga by 14
Enjoy the footy and remember gamble responsibly. There’s some cracking opening week games and it should be entertainment plus! International rugby league is rarely in the spotlight and let’s hope it shines as I for one would love to see more of it.