MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, picks out the six World Cup pool games he’s most looking forward to watching.
The World Cup is now just one day away and for the next six weeks Rugby League supporters can enjoy the luxury of seeing the best players in the world competing against each other for the 14 nations that will take part in this year’s tournament.
The pool games will take up the first three weekends of the tournament, with 21 matches in total before we get to the quarter-finals on the third weekend in November.
Naturally I’m looking forward to seeing all the games, but there are inevitably some that have particular appeal.
In chronological order the games I really can’t wait to see are the following matches.
1 Australia v England (Melbourne, 27 October)
What more do you need to say, other than this is yet another intriguing clash between the old enemies.
Three years ago at the same venue I thought England were robbed when a late try by Ryan Hall was disallowed and Australia triumphed 16-12 in that season’s Four Nations.
Most observers assume that the Aussies will triumph again, but if you look at the previews in this week’s League Express you’ll see that one crucial factor could be that the Aussies have only five players with previous World Cup experience, and one of those, Tyson Frizell, was with Wales.
England, on the other hand, have ten players in their squad with prior World Cup appearances.
We all like to think that experience counts, and if it does it could mean that England could shock the Aussies.
And what a great start to the World Cup that would be!
2 Papua New Guinea v Wales (Port Moresby, 28 October)
On the second day of the tournament Papua New Guinea will play their first game in a World Cup tournament in their capital Port Moresby. They have played games before at home, in the days when World Cups were strung out over several years, but not as a joint host in a concentrated tournament over a limited period.
And what a great prospect it is! I’m certain that the Welsh spirit will match that of the home side, particularly with that great motivator John Kear at the coaching helm, and although the Welsh are not as strong as they used to be in the old days, they will be up for this game and they’ll give the Kumuls a hell of a test.
PNG will rely on a squad drawn largely from the PNG Hunters team that won the Queensland Cup this year, although faces familiar to some English fans will include Paul Aiton (Catalans Dragons) and the Championship leading scorer Garry Lo on the wing, while Wales have a side that has more Championship and League 1 players than Super League stars. But don’t count them out.
The result I will be rooting for in this game is an honourable draw, which would set up Group C nicely.
3 France v Lebanon (Canberra, 29 October)
This is the game that will almost certainly determine which of these nations goes through to the quarter-final as the third qualifier in Group A.
France reached the final of the 1954 and 1968 World Cup, but their international success since those days has been limited.
The Lebanese first appeared in a World Cup in 2000 with a squad that was captained by the iconic Hazem el Masri. They were unlucky not to qualify for both the 2008 and 2013 tournaments, but this year they got through by beating South Africa.
Backed by some enthusiastic expatriate supporters in Australia and coached by Aussie legend Brad Fittler, they will probably start this game as the favourites against a French team that is keen to return to its former glories.
It will be interesting to see the size of the crowd that is drawn to Canberra for this game and which side the majority of the spectators decides to get behind.
4 Samoa v Tonga (Hamilton, 4 November)
The rivalry between Samoa and Tonga is one of the outstanding rivalries in world Rugby League, with their annual game in Sydney during May of each year already qualifying as a must-see game.
But the World Cup will be another step up in terms of intensity. With both sides expecting to qualify for the quarter-finals, they both have plenty of NRL stars to edge them over the line.
The Tongans in particular have generated lots of interest in their home island, and with players like Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita on board, and they should come into this game on the back of an opening victory against Scotland. On their day they should be a match for anyone.
But the Samoans have some impressive forwards of their own, with Josh Papalii and Frank Pritchard likely to be selected in the back row, so we should get ready for fireworks in a battle that will no doubt be played in front of some of the most enthusiastic supporters at the World Cup.
5 New Zealand v Tonga (Hamilton, 11 November)
A week later the Tongans will be in another massive game, when they take on New Zealand, again in Hamilton.
The Kiwis are still steaming at the decision of Jason Taumalolo to opt for playing for the Tongans instead of them, and we can expect to see the North Queensland Cowboys star getting some special attention from his opponents.
Taumalolo isn’t the only New Zealand star who will be absent, and if the Tongans can secure a victory it will send shockwaves around Rugby League, with the Kiwis then heading for a likely semi-final match up with the Australians, which should smooth England’s path to the World Cup Final.
It’s hard to see the Kiwis losing at home, but their supporters will face a nervous time in a city that isn’t a regular Rugby League venue.
6 Wales v Ireland (Perth, 12 November)
This will probably be the only game in the World Cup in which two home nations face each other.
Although it will take place in the third week of the pool rounds, I hope that at least one of these nations will still be able to qualify for the quarter-finals from Group C, assuming that the Kumuls haven’t already tied up the pool.
Nonetheless, in a game that will be played as a double-header with England’s game against France, both teams will be desperate to gain victory. The Irish appear to have the stronger squad, but Wales will be keen to claim bragging rights.
The Irish will field a team full of Super League stars, and on the face of it should be too strong for their Welsh opponents. If they come into this game on the back of a victory over the Kumuls the previous week, then they will be well place to push forward into the quarter-finals, where they would almost certainly face England, or perhaps Australia, in Melbourne on 19 November.
Full match reports, photos and analysis from the opening weekend of the World Cup will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express, available in all good newsagents and online at www.totalrl.com.