Rugby League World Cup: England home in on first win of crazy tournament

 

England can get their World Cup campaign back on track in front of a sell-out crowd that will emphasise just how this tournament has seized the public imagination.

Nobody would have predicted, after a first week full of surprises, that Italy and the United States would have won games and the only home nation with a victory would be Scotland. This afternoon, at the John Smith's Stadium in Huddersfield, there should be another, with logic saying that England will beat Ireland.

James Graham will be back from the naughty corner, but even more significant is the return from injury of the Wigan captain, Sean O'Loughlin. He has struggled with his Achilles tendon since before the Grand Final, but has been passed fit to take the place of the suspended Sam Burgess at loose forward.

O'Loughlin will bring very different qualities to that role. His presence in the side will provide an extra play-maker to take some of the burden off Kevin Sinfield – something that could have been crucial in keeping control of the match after England made such a good start against Australia last Saturday.

"We gave Australia too much of the ball last week, so we need to keep hold of it a bit better against Ireland," said the England full-back Sam Tomkins, referring to the opening 28-20 defeat. "We probably let them off the hook with a couple of penalties, so we'll be looking to improve our discipline."

Provided England can attend to these two areas, they should get the win they need; compared with some teams they have put on the field since they became a separate country for rugby league purposes, this is not a particularly strong Irish line-up.

With Simon Grix already ruled out, his brother, Scott, misses the chance to play on his Huddersfield home turf. He injured his thigh late in Ireland's defeat by Fiji on Monday and will be replaced at full-back by the much less experienced James Mendeika, who switches from stand-off.

Ireland might have no Grix, but they will have plenty of grit. One player England will have taken particular note of was the Manly reserve-grader, James Hasson, who impressed with his aggressive approach, with and without the ball, when he came off the bench.

"We need to believe in ourselves and believe we can beat England," he said. "We were a bit deflated after the Fiji game, but at the same time we can't be too down, because we know we put in a good performance."

The short turnaround since that match will do Ireland no favours; everything points to Mark Aston's men putting up a plucky display for a time and then tiring.

In the day's other Group A match between Australia and Fiji at St Helens, much will hinge on two players who, in this zany world of international qualification, have played for both countries.

Jarryd Hayne was one of the stars of Fiji's surge to the semi-finals in the 2008 World Cup and he admits it will feel strange to be playing against them this time. "It was a bit of a shock to make the Australian squad," said Hayne, who stands in for the rested Billy Slater this evening. "I thought I'd be playing for Fiji again."

Akuila Uate has moved in the opposite direction. Already an Australia international, he has been released to play for Fiji and the quality of his finishing was there for all to see in his hat-trick of tries against Ireland.

Tomorrow, following their opening day defeat by Italy, Wales have a "must-win" game against the US at Wrexham. It might have looked a formality for them a couple of weeks ago, but since then the Americans have beaten France in a friendly and the Cook Islands in the tournament proper, and have looked impressive.

A little later at Workington, the surprise packets, Scotland and Italy, come head-to-head, with the winners looking a good bet to make the quarter-finals. However often you say that, the more amazing it sounds, but that is the nature of this World Cup.

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