Rugby League World Cup: Showcase can lift game's spirits

The build-up to this year's tournament has been far from smooth, but it is still a chance to show all that is good about the sport

It almost goes without saying that the World Cup, which kicks off in Cardiff on Saturday, comes at a hugely important time for the game of rugby league in this country and beyond.

That would still be the case if the code was in rude health and a bullish mood. It has become clearer than ever over the last few days that it is nothing of the sort.

Last Saturday's warm-up game against the international novices of Italy was supposed to be a gentle work-out for England; a chance to run through some of the plans they had made during their high-altitude training camp in South Africa.

Instead, some of the best players produced distracted, unfocused performances that their coach, Steve McNamara, blamed on minds wandering to the following weekend and the real test against Australia.

And what was the reaction of our "best-prepared side ever" (copyright S McNamara 2011, 2012, 2013) to this debacle? For half a dozen of them, it was to break camp and go on the beer. Gareth Hock, that serial offender, was the only one sent home, but when McNamara named his side to face the Aussies he must have felt that he was selecting several others who had let him down.

As for Hock, he was always a misguided selection; too much of a risk on and off the field, for the simple reason that very few leopards change their spots after the age of 30.

To see him, in his one televised interview, whining about how hard done-by he had been, was to have it confirmed that, for all his obvious ability, he will never change his mentality. Meanwhile, factions within the game were doing a good impersonation of recent Democrat versus Republican intransigence at a meeting of Super League, where six of the clubs walked out.

The details of who wants what from the proposed restructuring of the league are too complex and too fluid to go into here. The one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that the current structure is not working; beyond that, there is little consensus and much acrimony.

Part of that stems from a problem that the World Cup shares. Like Super League, the tournament has no title sponsor. Of course, both say that they didn't want one, preferring a web of "partnerships", but if someone suitable had put their hand up, it would have been snapped off.

The root cause is that there is not enough money in the game. Commercially, it is not punching its weight and its heartland areas were the first to go into recession and will be the last to come out. What can a five-week festival of rugby league do to address all this? Well, remarkably, quite a lot. The World Cup has rather an uplifting history of defying crises.

Take Great Britain in the inaugural tournament in France in 1954. They could barely raise a team, didn't take a coach, but won the trophy. Or 1995, when rugby league was plunging into the carnage of the Super League wars over control of the game worldwide and the players made it an unforgettable tournament.

In terms of the game on the pitch, this one can be even better. For starters, victories by Italy over England and the USA against France in the warm-ups suggest a welcome element of unpredictability.

There is, admittedly, a fine Australian team here that starts as obvious favourites. Apart from the crowd-pleasers like Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, they are rich in natural leaders – Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Paul Gallen – and that suggests that they are going to be hard to beat when it counts.

New Zealand did it last time and there is always a chance that they will get the chemistry right again. They have had their usual big turnover of players, but in Sonny Bill Williams they have an individual capable of dominating the competition.

There is proven quality in the England squad; proven, not least, in Australia's NRL. What the mood is like after the events of this week is harder to fathom.

The convoluted structure of this World Cup means that defeat on Saturday will not be an unmitigated disaster, especially with Ireland and Fiji still to play. If England are to salvage any credibility, however, they need to put in a performance.

Co-hosts Wales face the Italians – or the Australian-Italians, as most of them are – in the second game, under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium. The draw gives them the prospect of a semi-final place to aim for, but one of the Pacific Island nations – Fiji, Tonga, Samoa – might make more convincing dark horses.

This World Cup has had more advance promotion than any in the past and that should be reflected in the attendances. Setting all the nonsense to one side, there is some compelling rugby league to be played over the next five weeks.

Group A

Australia

Coach Tim Sheens

Captain Cameron Smith

One to watch Andrew Fifita is an explosive front-rower who has made a mess of a lot of NRL defences in the second half of their season.

Last time Beaten finalists.

Prospects They have had their stutters in recent years, notably losing a World Cup and a Four Nations to New Zealand, but Australia still start as obvious favourites. Even by their standards, they have an exceptionally strong-looking squad, with players like Smith and Johnathan Thurston to pull the strings.

Odds to win 4-9

England

Coach Steve McNamara

Captain Kevin Sinfield

One to watch Sam Tomkins is undeniably world class and even managed to look good in the debacle against Italy.

Last time Beaten in semi-finals by eventual winners New Zealand.

Prospects Much of the confidence built up during the three-year run-up to this World Cup evaporated in that defeat by the unrated debutants in the warm-up match. Taking a very optimistic view of it, that could be a wake-up call that is going to serve them well. They still have the pack to take them forward, but something drastic needs to happen in the half-backs.

Odds to win 15-2.

Fiji

Coach Rick Stone

Captain Petero Civoniceva

One to watch Akuila Uate has played for Australia and is as good as any winger in the NRL. A danger to any defence if the Fijians can get the ball to him.

Last time Beaten in the semi-finals by Australia.

Prospects Fiji have a colourful cast of characters and an expansive way of playing the game. The will have passages of play where they keep the ball alive against all the odds and others where their high-risk approach lets them down. The redoubtable former Australian Test prop Civoniceva will be an inspiring leader and, like England, they have a trio of brothers – Ashton, Korbin and Tariq Sims.

Odds to win 275-1.

Ireland

Coach Mark Aston

Captain Liam Finn

One to watch Warrington's Ben Currie is one of the most promising back-row forwards in Super League.

Last time Beaten by Fiji in the semi-final qualifier.

Prospects Plenty of World Cup and other top-flight experience in the Irish squad and they can be relied on to play with plenty of heart. One significant addition is the Warrington utility player, Simon Grix, who joins his brother, Huddersfield's Scott in the squad. They also have as good a goal-kicker as they could wish for in Pat Richards.

Odds to win 500-1

Fixtures

26 Oct Australia v England (Cardiff, 2.30pm) Monday Fiji v Ireland (Rochdale, 8pm)

2 Nov England v Ireland (Huddersfield, 2.30pm) Australia v Fiji (St Helens, 8pm)

9 Nov England v Fiji (Hull KC, 2.30pm) Australia v Ireland (Limerick, 8pm)

Group B

France

Coach Richard Agar

Captain Olivier Elima

One to watch The mercurial young full-back, Morgan Escare, was one of Super League's finds of the season.

Last time Failed to win a game in the group stages.

Prospects England were not the only ones to suffer a morale-sapping defeat in their warm-up match. The French did something even more unthinkable by losing to the USA.

Odds to win 300-1

New Zealand

Coach Stephen Kearney

Captain Simon Mannering

One to watch Shaun Johnson is a speedy half-back who will soften the blow of Benji Marshall's absence.

Last time Won. Beat Australia in final. Prospects The Kiwis will need a lot to go their way to retain the World Cup. But with Sonny Bill Williams back in the fold, they could put it together again.

Odds to win 4-1

Papua New Guinea

Coach Adrian Lam

Captain Paul Aiton

One to watch Ray Thompson of the North Queensland Warriors is a live-wire at half-back or hooker.

Last time Lost all three group games.

Prospects They emerged with some credit despite their three losses and there is some quality in their squad. Sheffield Eagles' powerhouse centre, Menzie Yere, is a handful.

Odds to win 200-1

Samoa

Coach Matt Parish

Captain Harrison Hansen

One to watch Canberra's 19-year-old full-back, Anthony Milford, has been one of the most exciting young players in the NRL this season.

Last time Bottom of their group.

Prospects Looked jet-lagged in their defeat by England Knights in their warm-up match, but they will be a different team against New Zealand. Expect fireworks – if not a shock result – at Warrington on Sunday.

Odds to win 200-1

Fixtures

27 Oct Papua New Guinea v France (Hull CP, 4pm); New Zealand v Samoa (Warrington, 6pm)

1 Nov New Zealand v France (Avignon, 8pm)

4 Nov Papua New Guinea v Samoa (Hull CP, 4pm)

8 Nov New Zealand v Papua N Guinea (Leeds, 8pm)

11 Nov France v Samoa (Perpignan, 8pm)

Group C

Italy

Coach Carlo Napolitano

Captain Anthony Minichiello

One to watch James Tedesco, from Wests Tigers in Sydney is the sort of strong-running player who can break tackles.

Last time Never in the World Cup before.

Prospects Italy have already had their unlikely moment of glory, by beating England in their warm-up match. The surprise from them was not so much that they have a handful of high quality players – we knew that – as the way that the journeymen around them lifted their game. Their match against Wales now looks a potentially intriguing one.

Odds to win 1,000-1

Scotland

Coach Steve McCormack

Captain Danny Brough

One to watch Kane Linnett has been in outstanding form for North Queensland since he decided to activate his Scottish qualification.

Last time Beat Fiji in their group, but failed to qualify.

Prospects With Danny Brough – the man many think should be England scrum-half – and Peter Wallace, Scotland should be strong in the halves. They have plenty of other solid players to slot in around them, so should not be push-overs. Shame their games are not in Scotland, though.

Odds to win 500-1

Tonga

Coach Charlie Tonga

Captain Brent Kite

One to watch Daniel Tupou, of the Premiership-winning Sydney Roosters, is a giant of a winger, particularly dangerous under the high kick.

Last time Knocked out at group stage.

Prospects With a wealth of destructive forwards, Tonga are the logical favourites to win Group C. At 34, the cult hero, Fuifui Moimoi, will be in his last World Cup and will be as eager as anyone to make his mark. Another who presents an obvious threat is the New Zealand Warriors' centre, Konrad Hurrell.

Odds to win 200-1

Fixtures

29 Oct Tonga v Scotland (Workington, 8pm)

3 Nov Scotland v Italy (Workington, 4pm)

10 Nov Tonga v Italy (Halifax, 4pm)

Inter-group fixtures

26 Oct Wales v Italy (Cardiff, 4.30pm)

5 Nov Tonga v Cook Islands (Leigh, 8pm)

7 Nov Scotland v USA (Salford, 8pm)

Group D

Cook Islands

Coach David Fairleigh

Captain Zeb Taia

One to watch Isaac John was a flop at Wakefield, but has thrived at Penrith this season

Last time First appearance.

Prospects Tiny in terms of population, but with plenty of players. A heavy defeat by the Kiwis in their warm-up match probably defined their limitations, but they could trouble the Americans and the Welsh.

Odds to win 1,000-1

USA

Coach Terry Matterson

Captain Joseph Paulo

One to watch Craig Priestly looked a handy hooker in the four-Test series against Canada this year.

Last time First appearance.

Prospects Celebrated an implausible win over France in the warm-up match, but their selection has been hampered by a split in the game in the States and the original captain, Ryan McGoldrick, has withdrawn for personal reasons.

Odds to win 1,000-1

Wales

Coach Iestyn Harris

Captain Craig Kopczak

One to watch Rhys Evans gets limited opportunities at Warrington, but he has the makings of a quality centre or wing.

Last time Did not qualify.

Prospects Will be mortified if they do not win their group, but their opening "cross fixture" against Italy looms as a potential stumbling block. Watch for the pace of Huddersfield's Larne Patrick off the bench.

Odds to win 750-1

Fixtures

30 Oct USA v Cook Islands (Bristol, 8pm)

3 Nov Wales v USA (Wrexham, 2pm)

10 Nov Wales v Cook Islands (Neath, 2pm)

Inter-group fixtures

26 Oct Wales v Italy (Cardiff, 4.30pm)

5 Nov Tonga v Cook Islands (Leigh, 8pm)

7 Nov Scotland v USA (Salford, 8pm)

Route to final

Quarter-finals

15 Nov Winner Group B v Winner Group C (Leeds, 8pm)

16 Nov Winner Grp A v Winner Grp D (Wrexham, 1pm); Runner-up Grp A v Third-place Group B (Wigan, 8pm)

17 Nov Runner-up Group B v Third-place Group A (Warrington, 3pm)

Semi-finals

23 Nov Winner quarter-final 1 v Winner quarter-final 3 (Wembley, 1pm); Winner quarter-final 2 v Winner quarter-final 4 (Wembley, 3.30pm)

Final

30 Nov Winner semi-final 1 v Winner semi-final 2 (Manchester, 2.30pm)

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