World Cup Countdown: Australia

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 388 (August 2013)

The Australian coach and captain keen to make amends for 2008 ahead of this year’s World Cup

Tim Sheens and his captain Cameron Smith will both visit these shores for a second time in 2013 this autumn, and neither is preparing to return home empty-handed.
Smith tasted success on these shores in the World Club Challenge with Melbourne Storm in February, while Sheens flew over with a small delegation in March to continue his preparations for Rugby League World Cup 2013.
Both men will be back as part of the same travelling party in October, and both pairs of eyes will be firmly fixed on the ultimate prize following the Kangaroos’ defeat to New Zealand in the final five years ago.
“It’s a long series of weeks and it’s hard to maintain form throughout the tournament,” said Sheens.
“In 2008, Australia played well during the tournament but made a number of fundamental mistakes in the final.
“We had the game won at one stage, but a couple of mistakes crept in and all of a sudden New Zealand had their way back in.
“The Kiwis took the Four Nations off us as well with a last minute try, and they’re going to defend their title hard. It’s for England and Australia to take it off them.”
Smith was a part of the Kangaroos side defeated by New Zealand that night in Brisbane, and the memories are still vivid as the veteran hooker prepares for what could be his final opportunity to become a World Cup winner.
“I remember playing in that whole tournament and thinking that it was a huge opportunity for us to be crowned world champions,” he said.
“We had a great side, there was a great feeling in our camp, and in the games leading up we were playing some great football.
“One of those games was against New Zealand and we beat them quite comfortably, but I think we changed some subtle things in that last week, and maybe that had a little bit of an effect on our preparations.
“Maybe it had affected our outlook ahead of the game, and we were ambushed really.
“It wasn’t that we were under-prepared, but we were taken by surprise by New Zealand and the aggression they brought with them into the game They had a lot of intensity about them.
“They got the result, but there are guys involved in the team this year who played in 2008, and in the back of their mind there’ll be a small piece of wanting to put things right.”
Australia have been drawn alongside England, Fiji and Ireland in Group A, and they meet their biggest challengers for top spot on the opening day of the tournament at the Millennium Stadium.
“With so many England players now operating in the NRL this is an opportunity for me to see them first hand,” said Sheens.
“I’m not involved with a club any more so I’ll be looking a lot harder at the games here. I have a number of contacts over here too who will help me study the form of the England players.
“I know a fair bit about them, but there’ll always be a young player who’ll push into the squad, and we might not know about that until the end of the year.
“To disregard England would be a big mistake,” he added.
“New Zealand are the world champions but they won’t disregard England either, as they’ve missed out on finals a number of times.
“It’ll be a tough competition, and we’re really focused on winning that first game, as I’m sure England are, to ensure we get off to the best possible start.”
Smith, meanwhile, has plenty of experience of playing against Great Britain and England, and though his visits to the UK hold mostly fond memories, the Melbourne ace has also been on the wrong end of the scoreboard against their old rivals, including in Sydney at the 2006 Tri-Nations, when Sean Long overcame a savage, late challenge from Willie Mason to lead the Lions to victory.
“I’m not sure Great Britain took us by surprise, they played really well that night. It was in Sydney and I was actually on the bench, I remember,” he reflected.
“We may have underestimated their side a little bit, but I guess not seeing those guys too often might have been a little bit of it.
“We only get to see one match a week in Australia, and they caught us off-guard a little, but I know that since then every time we’ve played England or Great Britain, there is no going easy or complacency.
“They’re a great side and if we don’t turn up in Cardiff this autumn with the right attitude then we’ll be beaten like we were in that match.”
With close to 30 years first-grade and international level coaching experience under his belt, Sheens has enjoyed an incredible amount of success at club and Origin level.
He took the reins of the Kangaroos following Ricky Stuart’s failure to win the World Cup in 2008, and he admits that expectations on himself and the squad will grow as the tournament draws nearer.
“As of now, the pressure has not heightened, but I’m sure we’ll be reminded of what’s at stake as we get closer to the competition.
“We’re not going to be scrutinised on our own doorstep as the tournament is on the other side of the world, but there will be pressure on the team. We’re expected to contest it and everybody at home will expect us to win it.
“The Kiwis and England will be in the same position too, though, and they’ll have the same pressure on them, so a lot will boil down to how the teams handle that.
“A lot will boil down to how coaches manage their squad during the tournament. Do they rest players so they can guarantee being able to play their best team for the final?
“We’ll have 24 very good players but we’ll have to pick the side we think will win it. That might mean making one or two controversial decisions, but we’ll do what we need to do to get over the line.”
And for Smith, there is a similar level of pressure, borne out of the realisation that he may not be Australia’s starting hooker come the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
“In a way, I can view it as a box that’s left to tick. I’ve been lucky enough to win Premierships, win State of Origins and play for my country,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of success for my country too, but the one thing I haven’t done is win a World Cup, and any player who reaches international level would love to say they’re a World Cup winner.
“You’re playing against the best players in the world and victory in a final is something I want to do, and I guess it is a box that’s still left for me to tick.
“If I can’t do it this time then they may not be another opportunity,” he added.
“We’re all getting older, I’m 30 this year, and next time this tournament comes around I’ll be 34.
“There might be a young guy that comes up and takes that jersey off me, so I’d like to make the most of this year and hopefully end it with a World Cup win.”

By: Terry Carter

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