This weekend’s quarter-finals are a testing time for the World Cup, not so much for the nations which are expected to go through as for the tournament as a whole.
The danger of international competition in the code is that it can produce massive mismatches. That has not been the story so far, with a combination of an ingenious draw and heroic performances from the “lesser” countries producing compelling contests and some genuine shocks.
It all gets serious today when, after New Zealand’s game against Scotland last night, England and Australia look to reach the final four.
Standing in England’s way are France, who proved so inadequate a challenge that annual internationals were abandoned after a 60-point thrashing in 2010.
That snub could be a motivating factor for the French at the DW Stadium in Wigan tonight. The real question, however, is whether the Super League experience in their squad will ever make them competitive at this level.
The theory about the Catalan Dragons’ entry into Super League has always been that it would lift the standard of the national side. So far, that has not happened. The latest to try to make the connection is the Wakefield coach, Richard Agar, and he has not found it an easy task so far.
France would probably not even be in the quarter-finals if Papua New Guinea’s David Mead had not missed an easy shot at goal in the last minute of their first group match.
But crowds flocked to the games at Avignon and Perpignan and France showed a real willingness to battle to the end in Monday’s match against Samoa. If they can reproduce the same spirit at the DW this evening, they could at least make it interesting.
Agar has brought in another promising young Catalan, Damien Cardace, for possible inclusion on the wing, while Sam Tomkins, playing his last game in Wigan before decamping to the NRL, picks out his opposite number, Morgan Escare, as a threat.But there is no place for the recent Hull KR signing, Kevin Larroyer.
The search of the England coach, Steve McNamara, for his best side takes a step forward with the return of Josh Charnley on the right wing in place of his rival Tom Briscoe, and of James Roby at hooker.
Michael McIlorum had his chance in that role against Fiji last week but did not seem to do enough to put him ahead of Roby in the pecking order.
In the earlier game at Wrexham, it is hard to imagine Australia having too much trouble with the shock side of the tournament, the United States.
Australia have left out the experienced centre Brent Tate, with Jarryd Hayne likely to replace him. The latest unexpected twist from the US is that second-rower Mark Cantoni, who broke an arm in the warm-up game against France last month, recovered fast enough to be considered.
The best game of the weekend could well be tomorrow’s at Warrington, where Fiji face Samoa for the remaining place in the semi-finals; it is certainly the hardest to predict.
Samoa were in brutal mood in the tackle in their last game against France, which left them with a legacy of disciplinary issues before this one.
They have a man named Sue – Sauaso Sue, to be precise – available after his one-match ban for tripping was overturned on appeal this week.
However, they will be without another forward, Leeson Ah Mau, whose appeal against his one-game suspension for a shoulder-charge has failed,
Should Fiji fail to win, that will be the end of the career of one of the great forwards. Petero Civoniceva played in the Australia front-row for almost a decade and came out of international retirement at 37 to captain the land of his birth in this World Cup.