Team-by-team guide to the Lincoln Rugby League World Cup 2000

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The Independent Online

Australia

Australia

Their pre-tournament form confirms their status as unbackable favourites, and they undeniably have the bulk of the world's truly great current players - Gorden Tallis, Wendell Sailor, Andrew Johns, Brad Fittler and the rest. If they have a weakness - one compounded by the ease of their build-up - it could be a little complacency, especially where the Kiwis are concerned.

Cook Islands

Emerging Nations' tournament winners five years ago, they step up into the main event. Plenty of New Zealand-based talent, but they will find this a much tougher proposition. They have the most unlikely captain in the World Cup in the famously uncommunicative Kevin Iro - but he could lead effectively by example. Retirement of second Iro brother, Tony, is a big blow.

England

John Kear's resources are stretched thinner than he would like, but this promises to be a cohesive squad with better motivation than some recent Great Britain sides. Much depends on the two major creative figures, Andy Farrell and Sean Long, but it might be too much to expect them to ambush Australia in the opening game the way British sides have in the past.

Fiji

Played some invigorating rugby in the 1995 tournament, but the game has not progressed as hoped in a country worse affected than most by the Super League split in Australia. Success for them in this tournament will consist of keeping the score down against England and Australia and beating Russia, though Brisbane Broncos wing Lote Tuqiri has explosive place.

France

Modest signs of rising standards at club level in France mean that they should not be humiliated on their own soil. They also benefit from a sprinkling of players who have played creditably elsewhere in the rugby league world - such as Jerome Guisset at Canberra and Warrington. Will expect to qualify, but could be squeezed out by Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Ireland

Family links have produced a strong-looking squad, with particular depth of ability in a pack led by Wigan's Terry O'Connor and Barrie McDermott. Throw in a strong team spirit which has been consciously fostered by the squad's management, and Ireland have the ability to progress into the quarter-finals - and an intriguing possible showdown with England.

Lebanon

The strangest name to find in the World Cup, they are the product of Lebanese immigration into Sydney, where many have taken up the game. Hazem El-Masri, the Canterbury Bulldogs' goalkicking winger, will be one of the most talented finishers in the tournament, and the sheer aggres-sion they bring to the game could make them awkward opponents.

NZ Maori

Effectively a New Zealand second team, they have traditionally shown great pride in their performances against touring teams back home. There is no reason to believe that will not apply overseas - and they are led by Tawera Nikau, who has something to prove after a season at Warrington that was disappointing by the standards of a world-class player.

New Zealand

Bookies offering 7-1 against the Kiwis winning the World Cup are being generous. Apart from their most recent meeting, they have been capable of beating Australia in a one-off match. They have more than their share of outstanding individuals, of whom the Paul brothers are the best known to British crowds, but they must hope that their captain, Richie Barnett, is fully recovered.

Papua New Guinea

Formidable at home, the Kumuls were stung by their recent record 82-0 defeat in Australia. They have brilliant individuals in Marcus Bai, Stanley Gene and Wigan's new signing Adrian Lam, who emerged as one of the world's leading half-backs during the Sydney Roosters' run to this year's Grand Final. But they are notoriously bad travellers, especially to colder climes.

Russia

It is a sporting miracle that the game has continued to be played through all the upheavals in the former Soviet Union. The Russians now have a solid nucleus of players who are used to international competition, bolstered for this tournament by a seven-strong strong contingent based in Australia, headed by the imposing Sydney City Roosters prop Ian Rubin.

Samoa

A tough, aggressive side as Western Samoa in 1995, they have lost leading players - as well as half their name - this time. They would look a lot better if they had Apollo Perelini and Fereti Tuilagi playing for them, rather than for their new rugby union clubs, and had not lost Va'aiga Tuigamala from last time around. Still a danger in the most unpredictable of the groups.

Scotland

Have had less success than Ireland in picking up qualified players on their trawl of the southern hemisphere. They look too shallow in too many positions to mount a real challenge, although Shaun McRae, who knows as much about preparing international teams as anyone, will have them well organised. Much rests on the shoulders of the 1999 Man of Steel, Adrian Vowles.

South Africa

They were confident of doing well last time, but their team of rugby union converts were found badly wanting. There is more league know-how this time, from the British-based Jamie Bloem and Mark Johnson and several who have played to a good standard in Australia. A serious question mark, though, over whether they can prevent Group Three becoming a three-horse race.

Tonga

They have plenty of players currently plying their trade in Australia and New Zealand who qualify, although the loss of Jim Dymock, a member of Australia's winning side last time and now bound for the London Broncos, is a major one. Plenty of experience in the likes of Duane Mann, Martin Masella and Tevita Vaikona, the blockbusting Bradford wing.

Wales

Without their former rugby union players - retired or returned to union - it will be a major achievement for Wales to match their semi-final in 1995. Iestyn Harris - who scored 16 points as Wales won a rugged warm-up game on Thursday 40-8 against South Africa - and Keiron Cunningham must stay healthy. If not, even a quarter-final spot is not a certainty.

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