Australia favored as usual at Rugby League World Cup

October 13, 2022 GMT
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Captains of the competing men's teams pose for a picture at a media event to mark the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup in Manchester, England, Monday Oct. 10, 2022. The tournament which is being hosted in England will begin on Oct. 15. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Captains of the competing men's teams pose for a picture at a media event to mark the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup in Manchester, England, Monday Oct. 10, 2022. The tournament which is being hosted in England will begin on Oct. 15. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Australia has brought 13 newcomers to the Rugby League World Cup starting this weekend.

Even if all 24 players in the Kangaroos squad were uncapped, it still wouldn’t matter.

They are the raging favorite to engrave their name on the Paul Barriere Trophy after the Nov. 19 final at Old Trafford. Australia is already inscribed from eight of the last nine World Cups, 11 out of 15 in tournament history. Few teams have so dominated their sport’s biggest titles as the Kangaroos; beside Chinese divers, Japanese judokas and Canadian curlers.

“Winning competitions is what drives you as a player and the World Cup is an opportunity to realize those dreams. We’re coming to win it,” Australia coach Mal Meninga warned.

The great Meninga reminds the squad of its brilliant legacy. He captained the world champions in 1992 and coached them to glory in 2017.

An old sparring partner, British great Ellery Hanley, suggests the Australians could be tripped up by only complacency. But that’s not expected, not with so many new (and old) Kangaroos who are excited to play Australia’s first tests since 2019.

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The gap between tests should have been smaller but Australia and New Zealand withdrew from the World Cup just months before its scheduled start in October last year. They felt the U.K. was unsafe in the pandemic. This was just after London hosted the soccer European Championship, the English Premier League was opening to crowds, and the Australia and New Zealand rugby union teams were planning their annual tours of Britain’s packed stadiums. Australia and New Zealand were branded “selfish, parochial and cowardly.”

The World Cup avoided being scrapped but was delayed for a year because the Conservative U.K. government invested 25 million pounds to please the north England working-class voters and league fans who gave them a sack full of local parliamentary seats.

It’ll be the biggest World Cup yet. For the first time, the women’s and wheelchair tournaments are alongside the men’s. Organizers confidently predict ticket sales to easily pass the 450,000 from the 2013 men-only World Cup, the last one hosted in Britain.

The women’s opener on Nov. 1 between England and newcomer Brazil in Leeds has attracted more than 10,000. There were less than 1,000 left for the wheelchair final in Manchester.

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More than 40,000 of 49,000 have been sold for the men’s opener between England and Samoa in Newcastle on Saturday. England has never won the World Cup, though it reached the final last time. England has played only one test team in four years. Samoa is rusty, too, but the betting favorite for the crucial group match.

Samoa, which has never been past the quarterfinals, has assembled its best squad ever. Eight featured in the Australian National Rugby League grand final this month. Three would have been in Meninga’s squad: Backs Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and Joseph Sua’ali’i, who still hopes to play for Australia one day. “This is about more than football,” Sua’ali’i said of picking Samoa. “This is about respecting my family.”

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Tonga was a stunning first-time semifinalist in 2017. Co-captained by the suspended Jason Taumalolo, one of the best forwards in the game, they should win a group including the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Wales.

Fiji has been to the last three semifinals, but its buildup has been disrupted by an illness which has hospitalized coach Joe Rabele. The team has also been depleted by injuries to star winger Mikaele Ravalawa, who has gone home, Pio Seci and Joseph Ratuvakacereivalu. Not ideal before facing Australia on Saturday in Leeds.

New Zealand should steamroll its group with one of the most complete squads, pinned to a fearsome forward pack and Swiss-knife center Joseph Manu. The only drawback for the Kiwis is they’re likely to run into Australia in the semifinals.

The Kiwis begin on Sunday against Lebanon, which is guided by Argentina rugby union coach Michael Cheika. He committed before the Argentina job.

If Lebanon reach a second straight quarterfinal, the game will probably be two days before Argentina plays England in a union test at Twickenham. An unfazed Cheika said, “Whichever game is first goes first.”

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Two teams will make their debut, Jamaica and Greece, where rugby league was recognized by the government only this year after a decade-long civil war between rival governing bodies. Both sides have local players to take their World Cup experience home and further develop the game.

Australia captain James Tedesco did his bit when he represented Italy in the last two World Cups, but to lead the Kangaroos, he said, “I don’t think there is a higher honor.”

The world’s best fullback isn’t worried that Australia’s smaller forwards might be shaded by New Zealand’s, Samoa’s, or Fiji’s.

“We may not be the biggest, but we are the most hard-working,” Tedesco said. “We are just going to outwork teams.”

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