England pack a punch for the Papuans
There are some sporting events that only make any sort of sense once they have started. There is every chance that the Rugby League World Cup will be one of them. The 13th running of the oldest global tournament in either code of rugby, which kicks off in Australia on Saturday, has had its credibility undermined well in advance.
There are only 10 nations taking part, so terrified are the organisers of losing money. There is no Emerging Nations competition, with all the extra colour that can bring, although there are Student and Women's World Cups.
Then there is the contrived draw, designed to produce competitive televised games from the start but effectively relegating everyone outside the big three to the status of also-rans.
There has also been chaos over who qualifies to play for whom. The demographics of the Pacific are such that many players have a foot in two countries. But to change allegiance after being named by one nation risks turning it into a Whitehall farce. And there has been a steady stream of withdrawals, not just to rugby union but also from the inevitable toll of injuries.
Yet when it begins with England taking on Papua New Guinea in Townsville on Saturday night, the chances are that the action will be exhilarating. Not for the first time in the World Cup's chequered history, the players are ready to bale out the administrators.
Not too much should be expected of Scotland or Ireland, who are in a very tough group with the highly physical Tongans and Samoans. With the help of adopted citizens, both will compete with spirit, but lack the depth of quality to do much more than that.
England look reassuringly strong in the pack and all the signs are that their coach, Tony Smith, will encourage them to play to their strengths, which means a fluid, attacking style rather than a containing game. The worst thing that could happen would be a stumble against PNG. The Kumulsare capable of making it awkward, especially in the subtropical heat of Townsville. They have good reason for a chip on the shoulder and have a sophisticated coach – they will be far more Adrian Lam than sacrificial lamb, but England should beat them.
It is Australia's centenary and their show, and they take on New Zealand next Sunday. Both have stars missing but the Aussies, as ever, have the greater strength in depth. England and the Kiwis should join them in the semis, with one place to be contested by the winners of Pools Two and Three, France and Samoa perhaps.
By then the World Cup will have developed its own momentum and new stars will have emerged, such as Australia's breathtaking full-back Billy Slater, the freakishly talented Krisnan Inu of New Zealand or maybe England's tiny tormentor of defences, Rob Burrow. Those players and others like them will make sense of it all.
Despite the loss of Willie Mason and Mark Gasnier, the holders still have a formidable array of talent, including the new breed of massive, hyper-athletic backs such as Greg Inglis (pictured right) and Israel Folau. Doubts centre on whether Darren Lockyer has much left in the locker, but it would take a brave man to bet against them.
Have gone Down Under with a great attitude and players who are bang in form. The pack looks strong enough to take on anybody, with James Graham set to be one of the tournament's big stars. The talent is more thinly spread in the backs, and heaven help them if Rob Burrow gets injured. They are genuinely expecting to win, and are a realistic bet to reach the final.
No one can be sure what to expect from the Kiwis, especially without Sonny Bill Williams, Roy Asotasi and Brent Webb. There is no shortage of ability from the likes of Krisnan Inu and Benji Marshall, however, and in Stephen Kearney and the Australian guru Wayne Bennett they could have the right coaching team.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The one country where rugby league is indisputably the national sport has been angered by being put in a group as whipping boys and would love to upset the applecart. They have fine players in Stanley Gene and John Wilshere, but too many others who have never competed at this level.
Should start to show the benefit of the Catalans Dragons' success by winning their group. Thomas Bosc and Sébastian Raguin have made great strides, but there is a big gap between them and those from the French domestic competition.
The great unpredictables, they could be a handful for anyone if their brand of off-the-cuff rugby clicks on the day. Plenty of pace out wide from Semi Tadulala and Wes Naiqama, but doubts about whether their forwards can hack it.
Not expected to make the trip, but were worthy winners over Wales in the qualifiers. Rank outsiders, but the combination of Danny Brough's tactical kicking and the pace of Michael Robertson – who scored a hat-trick in the NRL Grand Final – could embarrass somebody.
Not likely to be the force they were in 2000, when they reached the quarter-finals. They will not lack for support around their base in Parramatta and have one of the best goal-kicking wingers in Pat Richards.
They might look like New Zealand's reserves, but Samoa have a strong sense of their own identity. They also have plenty of size and aggression, plus clever ball-handling forwards in David Solomona and Ali Lauitiiti.
Even after some confusion over who qualifies for them, Tonga are left with a strong line-up. It is a family affair, with three Paea brothers and three Andersons in the squad. Their game against Samoa will be a battle.
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