Australia's ruthless artistry to set standard

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The Independent Online

How typical of rugby league that five years after what was, for all its problems, one of the code's major triumphs, many should be looking forward to the start of this tournament this weekend with a trepidation bordering on panic.

How typical of rugby league that five years after what was, for all its problems, one of the code's major triumphs, many should be looking forward to the start of this tournament this weekend with a trepidation bordering on panic.

Let's face it, what is now the Lincoln Financial Group World Cup - even predating, as it does, the rugby union version by several decades - has always been a largely unloved bastard child.

It was the French - who you would not expect, in the modern context, to have the clout to initiate anything - who had it brought into the game's calendar in 1954. At the other end of the scale, the Australians, expected by everyone to win it again, have no interest in hosting it. Hence its speedy return to these shores - and to France.

That last tournament in 1995 was a roaring success almost despite itself. Thrown together amid the repercussions of the Super League war raging on two fronts, it was rescued by the quality of the play and the enthusiastic public response to games that the Jeremiahs predicted they would ignore.

The favourite memories of the 90s for many British fans revolve not around watching their own club, or even their own country, but around games like New Zealand versus Tonga at Warrington, Fiji versus South Africa at Keighley or Papua New Guinea versus Tonga at Hull.

The difference between then and now is that those were all rugby league towns, where a measure of general interest in the game can be assumed. By contrast, the 2000 World Cup has taken on a much harder sell, with games in both halves of Ireland, in Scotland and in alien parts of England, as well as in Wales and France.

Not all grounds are going to be packed to the rafters and a schedule imposed by negotiations with two television networks means that there are too many clashes to allow itinerant gatherers of games to wander the country as they did last time.

Much of the tournament's success will depend on selling the idea to new audiences and the worst that can be said is that plenty of time and energy has been put into that essential work. We will know by the end of this week how successful that has been.

We will also have a shrewd idea whether anyone can stop Australia. The sensible, logical answer to that is no. Geoff Carr, who managed previous parties to visit the country sums up the difference this way: "When we had a great side in the early 90s with the likes of Mal Meninga, we put 30-odd past Papua New Guinea. We played them two weeks ago and scored 82 - and the guys were absolutely ruthless. Every player is the master of every skill."

Carr is part of the lobby that paints this as the best Australian side ever and, if that seems a little extravagant to those who remember the ground-breaking 1982 Kangaroo tourists, then the statistics of their recent domination back him up.

And yet the sheer scale of that domination could conceivably be their undoing. If England, in tomorrow's opening match at Twickenham, or New Zealand in a semi-final or final can stand up to them for long enough, they will be taking Australia into territory with which they are not currently familiar.

Even then, you would back players like Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns and Gorden Tallis to bring then safely out on the other side, but this is not a squad exactly battle-hardened by recent international experience and their massacre of the innocents might not be the formality that the tournament's detractors expect.

That leaves the question of who can stop them. Recent history suggests New Zealand, who have the added advantage of having lost heavily the last time they played Australia, thus conveniently wiping any evidence of all the trouble they have given them over the last 15 years out of the Australian memory bank.

But this has not been a smooth Kiwi preparation. Their coach, Frank Endacott, is not only at odds with the NZRL, he has also been in Britain with Wigan during the squad's preparatory work and only met up with them again this Tuesday.

There have even been rumblings of a players' strike over the failure of the Auckland Warriors to honour their contracts. Those have died down, but it will still be a major test of Endacott's famous man-management skills to get his men in the right frame of mind for what lies ahead.

New Zealand do have the advantage of what looks like a relatively comfortable group and could have played themselves into fighting trim by the time they meet Australia or England.

Unless they beat Australia tomorrow, England are likely to meet the Kiwis at the semi-final stage and the recent record of full Great Britain sides against New Zealand gives no realistic cause for optimism.

Not unless, that is, you believe that the refreshing new mood within the camp is resilient enough to withstand the knocks it will take. Like Australia, England have warmed up with a massacre - in their case, 110-0 over the United States last Saturday - but more important than the scoreline is an atmosphere within the squad that suggests it is the most positive since the days when Malcolm Reilly coached Great Britain.

There are major worries over the team, like the need to play Kris Radlinski on the wing and the defensive capabilities of the centres, but England look solid and capable in the pack and have, in Sean Long, a scrum-half for whom the World Cup has come at precisely the right time.

On top of his form for St Helens and given his head in this tournament, he could be the star of the World Cup, even though his captain, Andy Farrell, will still carry the bulk of the creative and tactical workload.

From the rest of the record 16 countries involved, there is the promise of heroics along the way, if not perhaps the prospect of beating one of the big three - or the big one, plus two, as some would have it.

Ireland have the pack power and the passion to break that mould if England are not wary in a potential quarter-final, while Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Maori side should all have their moments - and even whole matches - of magic.

There will be some frightening discrepancies and massive scorelines, especially when Australia and England meet Russia, but the game would be wrong to tear out its hair too much over that. The main point is that the tournament should be competitive at the top end.

That is why the World Cup needs a performance from England at Twickenham to set the tone and crowds in Belfast, Gloucester, Paris, Barrow, Wrexham and Glasgow this weekend to show that it has been right to set its horizons so wide.

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