Biting allegations, pitch invasions, punch ups, serious injuries, huge hits, tremendous tries, emotion charged cultural challenges and sensational skill. Only rugby league dishes out this much entertainment, excitement, aggression, colour and controversy in equal doses. What an opening weekend to the Rugby League World Cup it was on and off the field and hopefully an even better second week with crowds clamouring closer matches than the floggings that featured. The classy Kangaroos open the weekend’s action against the forlorn French in Canberra.
Australia v France
A rare visit to the nation’s capital for the Kangaroos will hopefully produce a big crowd as empty seats was one of the glaring disappointments of the opening round of matches. The result of this match is not in doubt, the Kangaroos will crush the French but it’s the performance that matters. Mal Meninga will seek a slicker display than last week’s rusty rolling of England. The 18-4 score line flattered the Australians but Big Mal has made a few changes so things may be disjointed for another week. David Klemmer starred at prop and the rest of the pack must match his aggro and intent. The Klemminator steamrolled the English and will look to flatten the French like a crepe but this time off the bench as Jordan McLean and Reagan Campbell-Gillard receive their chance to impress in the green and gold starting XIII. France were shattered after losing the crunch match against Lebanon that was a virtual quarter final qualifying playoff that has sealed the French fate barring any severe upsets. France know they’re up against it this weekend, pushing merde up a very steep hill. France will look to compete and cut out the errors that cost them against Lebanon as they prepare for England next week, a side they’re more likely to upset than the Kangaroos. The forwards hit hard especially Julian Bousquet but their ruck defence was leaky and it’s this area of the game Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and the new halfback James Maloney will exploit. Cooper Cronk has been rested no doubt making sure his new Roosters contract has had all the i’s dotted, t’s crossed and brown paper bags are not full of monopoly money… just kidding it’s all been ticked off by the NRL so has to be kosher… OK back to the World Cup. To their credit France threw the ball around and looked dangerous in the centres on both sides, the one major chink in the Aussie armour, and its France’s avenue to points. French gun Theo Fages has been shifted to halfback and will be the general running the show, he will be under extreme pressure so his kicking game must be on point. Australia are building towards the sharper end of the tournament and let’s face it, this is a glorified training run.
Australia by 36
New Zealand v Scotland
A massive task confronts the Bravehearts. Scotland are well versed in heading south to battle the English and historically copping the occasional pounding. To open Saturday’s matches they head to the capital of the South Island, Christchurch to take on a rejuvenated and reinvigorated Kiwi side and face another hiding. On the back of a demoralising 50-4 thrashing by Tonga, Scotland must drag themselves off the canvas and stare down the men in black. The silver-lining is at least it will be cooler than Cairns! Some players looked like they’d been holidaying in Ibiza for a month and forgotten to bring sunscreen. Flourescent pink is not a tan! Giving Scotland hope is they drew with the Kiwis a year ago at the Four Nations but that seems light years away after the Tongans treated them like speedbumps. The Scots may be missing key players from that tournament like Lachlan Coote, Euan Aitken and Kane Linnett but they’re backs, it’s the forwards who were trampled and must bounce back. New Zealand have a strong pack, unluckily for the Scots it’s no smaller than the Tongans with Addin Fonua-Blake on the (reinforced pine) bench alongside Nelson Asofa-Solomona who has his own weather system circling around his head and legs like his namesakes famous column in Trafalgar Square, Asofa-Solomona Column – yeah that’s it I think. Okay English geography aint my strong point or it’s grammar. It is a forward pack that is also very mobile and skilful a la Joseph Tapine and Kenny Bromwich. The Kiwis are intent on spreading the ball and moving sides around and used these qualities to sensational effect in the second half to dismantle Samoa. David Kidwell has rung in plenty of changes mostly in the backs. Te Maire Martin has been included to pair with the magical Shaun Johnson as the Kiwis give their squad a run and rest as the huge hit out against Tonga looms on the horizon. David Kidwell will hope his men can rack up a score early so he can cotton wool stars like Johnson and give valuable game time to other squad members. Johnson’s battle against the Tartan talisman Danny Brough will be a beauty. Brough’s pride was pricked after their opening shocker and he’ll try to arouse an upset out of his men but a loss is not fatal. The Bravehearts will be better than last week but it won’t be enough, leaving them in a more than likely, winner takes all quarter final qualifier against Samoa in week three. Ole Jock will put the celebratory whisky on hold until next week.
New Zealand by 20
Samoa v Tonga
This crunch clash between the Pacific powerhouses is one of the most highly anticipated in the tournament. It all begins with the cultural challenges, Tonga’s Sipi Tau versus Samoa’s Siva Tau. If these don’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, turn over and watch The Bachelorette because league isn’t for you! Off the back of this adrenaline pumping theatre the opening exchanges will be brutal. You may want to bracket your TV to the wall because the shockwaves might shake it off the cabinet. Tonga are warm favourites and lived up to the hype in wiping the floor with Scotland in a performance that puts them right in the mix to not only win this Pool but take out the whole kit and caboodle! Jason Taumalolo was at his most destructive in a devastating display of Beast Mode battering ram combined with blessed silky skills that blasted the Bravehearts. Samoa need to find a way to limit his impact because he is virtually unstoppable. Expect more of the same with Andrew Fifita joining in and off the back of this, the speed men Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou on the lethal left side are a major weapon the Samoan’s must combat. Jennings clash against Joey Leilua will be a pacific pearler. Samoa were extremely disappointing last week as they fell away badly in the second stanza. Their much-vaunted pack tired and their lack of mobility was unpeeled as the Kiwis tactic to tear through the middle bore fruit. Tonga will bring out the best in Samoa so expect an improved showing. Josh Papalii was quiet by his lofty standards and will target Taumalolo, whether he can hit the bullseye is another matter! Samoa have a tough pack and talented backs but the halves are a major weakness, better last play options are required to tame Tonga. Expectations are high in this RLWC for Tonga, they sent out a warning in the post to all-comers in smacking the Scots and they’ll deliver again.
Tonga by 14
England v Lebanon
An intriguing match as Sydney hosts its first game which basically doubles as a home game for Lebanon as half of western Sydney will head east to Allianz Stadium. After recording a dramatic first ever World Cup win Lebanon’s confidence will be sky high and the drums will be beating and have the Cedar fans in the stands dancing as Lebanon dreams of adding another European scalp after skittling the French. Brad Fittler surprised all by starting Michael Lichaa on the bench but it proved a masterstroke as the Bulldogs hooker unleashed a series of raids through the ruck, the try he scored on the stroke of halftime the dagger in French hearts. If England keep it tight in defence it will force Lebanon out wide as most of their good play came via the middle. Adam Doueihi’s impact off the bench has been rewarded with a start in the centres but Mitchell Moses was the matchwinner and his battle against Gareth Widdop is both the key contest and potentially the match definer. Moses was scintillating in grabbing the contest by the scruff of the neck and another stormer in front of likely Blues coach Fittler won’t harm his NSW Origin chances in the slightest. Fittler’s counterpart, Wayne Bennett claims he didn’t watch Lebanon play and doesn’t know most of their squad, to be honest he probably doesn’t know much about half of his own squad but the master coach knows winning rugby league and that’s all that matters. Bennett has shown faith in halfback Luke Gale but he needs to run more and repay that belief and if the English pack gets on the front foot Gale will. It’s a big game for Gale as George Williams or Kevin Brown are waiting in the wings. Despite Sam Burgess’ absence it is a very strong pack and watch Alex Walmsley on debut, he’s a great talent and will be out to make this bench spot his own. Don’t be fooled by the score line, England pushed the Aussies all the way and again just a few errors and lack of composure – along with a couple of contentious calls – cost them. Bennett will want to build on last week’s sterling defensive effort and add some polish to the attack which was a bit clunky, unsurprising as half the side hadn’t played a competitive match for quite some time. This match is a perfect opportunity to work on combinations as when it comes to the crunch games England needs to find more points. Jermaine McGillvary needs as much ball as England can deliver as given space he looked extremely dangerous against the Kangaroos. Lebanon will be a good test and riding high on the fumes of a famous victory will fancy their chances. England are looking big picture and will stick to the Bennett playbook, they’ll expand their game as the part timers tire and come away with a confidence boosting win.
England by 20
Papua New Guinea v Ireland
Two impressive winners go head to head in the electric and stifling atmosphere of Port Moresby. It is a crucial match, basically a winner takes all battle to top Pool C and go through to the quarter finals as both should win their respective matches next week. Ireland were the surprise packets of week one defeating the immensely disappointing Italians. Italy may have had a handful of NRL stars but the Irish played as a team, one well coached by Mark Aston. Liam Finn had a blinder at halfback and led the side around the park superbly but the platform was set by a powerful performance from the pack who impressed in the Italian job. Mickey McIlorum was brilliant in controlling the tempo of the ruck and this was taken advantage of by Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook. LMS had a stormer, scoring a try, running for mountains of metres and is a danger man the Kumuls need to stop. PNG exceeded expectations in whacking Wales as the build-up in the league mad nation had been enormous. They came out firing and will look to do so again to get on top of the Irish early and launch the raucous crowd channelling the energy onto the pitch for lift off. If the Kumuls forwards get a roll on, expect Kurt Baptiste to zip out of dummy half at every opportunity and feed the brilliant Boas brothers in the halves, Ase and Watson who ran the show against the hapless Welshmen. The Kumuls have a tremendous advantage out wide with NRL stars fullback David Mead and centre Nene Mcdonald brilliant broken play hard to contain. My new cult favourite is winger Garry Lo who has legs like tree trunks so thick he makes Ryan Hall look like a whippet! Lo can run like a greyhound too. It was offload city against the Welsh and if Ireland can’t stifle the second phase play the Kumuls will run riot. Keep an eye on PNG bench man, Stargroth Amean the man with the name straight out of a Hollywood film set! Amean can motor and adds to the attractive ball movement that will keep coming at the Irish until the referee calls cut, that’s a wrap.
Papua New Guinea by 16
Italy v USA
Italy are showing more fight off the field than on it, with news leaking out of North Queensland that star fullback James Tedesco had a bust up with team mate Shannon Wakeman in a Cairns bar. If the Italian campaign wasn’t in disarray already after the upset defeat to Ireland it is now, it wouldn’t surprise to see Wakeman offer up some well-timed hospital passes to Tedesco. Ironically the Italians are using #unaFamiglia on Twitter for the RLWC, one family but maybe a not so happy one. Italy need to win and have no option but to put all the chaos behind them and dig in. On paper it’s a good side that could still progress but with Fiji playing Wales, Italy may have to post a cricket score against the Americans and then obviously defeat Fiji next week to have any chance. The Italian pack was flat against the Irish and need to stand up. Skipper Mark Minichiello and Nathan Brown will be the men charged to open up the fireworks on the USA and feeding off this frenzy will be the old shark Terry Campese who makes a timely return with youngster Jack Johns unfortunately joining the queue of players suffering tournament ending injuries. Campo plays a unique brand of footy that is fun to watch and he shouldn’t have too much trouble bamboozling the Americans. The USA were gallant but outgunned by Fiji and I cannot see them causing too many problems for the Italians whose biggest danger is shooting themselves in the foot. Eddy Pettybourne, Mark Offerdahl and Matt Shipway head an honest hardworking pack but it is a pea shooter compared to the big guns in the Italian side. The only way I can see the US spring a surprise win Trump-style is through Russian intervention hacking into the Italian tactics on coach Cameron Ciraldo’s computer. Even then Italy have too much class and as long as they put the off field dramas behind them they will win easily.
Italy by 34
Fiji v Wales
With Pool D potentially going down to for and against if Italy knock the Fijians off next week, Fiji will look to rack up another monster win. The prey this week is Wales, who were the patsy served up to the Kumuls in the humidity of Port Moresby in their opening match. Why the heat rule wasn’t in place for this match but was for the Cairns double header was strange but either way the Welsh were well out of their depth and are again this week in Townsville. I hope the Welsh are adjusting to the heat because playing the Kumuls then Fiji in these conditions is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Fiji have a classy side, rugged forwards steered around by the general Jarryd Hayne and finished off by freakish flyers in Akuila Uate and Suliasi Vunivalu. Fiji will look to start fast generating pressure which will crack Wales and once that happens, the floodgates will open. Wales forwards will be under the pump all game and need players like Rhodri Lloyd, who matched the aggression of the Kumuls to get in the face of the Fijians and play the games of their lives, whilst throwing Fiji off their rhythm. Easier said than done as Fiji have talent spread right through their ranks, if they control the ball and complete their sets the tries will come. If they control the ball and let it sing like they do in the emotion charged anthem that brought captain Kevin Naiqama to tears last week, they will score a bucket load and win by a country mile in style.
Fiji by 30
Enjoy the footy and gamble responsibly. Let’s hope the crowds are bigger this week as the rugby league on show is cracking. If Australian’s cannot be bothered to watch then maybe the whole event should have been held in PNG! At least they can sell out a stadium.