Billy Slater looks ready to take his place in Australia’s side to try to win back the World Cup his mistake cost them five years ago. The Melbourne full-back was player of the tournament in 2008. In the final, however, it was his error that created the winning try for the Kiwis’ Benji Marshall. This time, he missed the semi-final against Fiji after aggravating a knee injury in the last group game against the US and there were fears he might have to sit out his chance for revenge in this afternoon’s final at Old Trafford.
Slater trained normally yesterday, though, according to his team-mate, Johnathan Thurston. “From what I saw him do on the pitch, he looked the goods,” the stand-off said. “He had the week off, so he’ll be fresh and ready to play and he’ll have no demons from the 2008 final. He tackles everything front on.”
The captain of Melbourne and Australia, Cameron Smith, has known Slater since the Under-15s and he agrees that the famous mistake will have no bearing on his effort to achieve fitness.
“He got over that really quick,” Smith said. “Billy’s a person who lives very much in the moment.”
A final decision will be made this morning, but all the indications are that Slater will have his moment again. That would mean Greg Inglis moving back to centre, with Brent Tate missing out.
A beautifully balanced World Cup final at a packed stadium this afternoon could hinge on both teams’ last-minute decisions over who is fit to play and who is not. The Kiwi Cup holders have already put a line through the name of one player they would dearly have loved to have in their starting XIII. Even in something of a golden era for New Zealand forward play, Frank Pritchard’s combination of physical presence and deft handling is close to unique.
His hamstring failed to get through a fitness test, however, which means that, as in the semi-final against England, Elijah Taylor will start.
There have been question marks through the week as well about both Kiwi wingers, Manu Vatuvei and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Vatuvei’s brute power near the line is well known, but Tuivasa-Sheck has been one of the revelations of the tournament, his breathtaking footwork bringing him eight tries so far.
The pair are both considered likely to play, which means no place for another outstanding winger, Jason Nightingale.
Another bonus from Tuivasa-Sheck is the instant rapport he has struck up with his centre, Dean Whare, who has been clearly the best threequarter in the World Cup. At its most extreme, the partnership produced the freak try that contributed to England’s defeat at Wembley, but consistently through the tournament the pair have displayed a rare understanding.
New Zealand also have the ultimate class act of the tournament. The late selection of Sonny Bill Williams was a messy business, but it has been justified by the growing influence he has exerted.
He has stood out, without seeming to be quite in top gear; he could well find that at Old Trafford today. One thing that is not in doubt is his enjoyment at being back in international rugby league after a six-year absence.
“To come away and enjoy time with the brothers and pull the Kiwi jersey on, I’ve actually fallen back in love with rugby league this year,” he said.
Williams, who was voted the world rugby league Player of the Year this week, won the union version of the World Cup in 2011 and is also New Zealand’s No 1 heavyweight boxer, was part of the side that was seriously roughed up by England in an epic semi-final at Wembley but still came through after scoring a converted try with barely 20 seconds left to win 20-18.
“Twelve rounds?” said Williams. “It certainly was like that.”
One of Williams’ more memorable moments this World Cup was when he wove through the Samoan defence, only to take the ball dead on the narrow in-goal area at Warrington. It is irresistibly amusing when one of the world’s greatest players can do something like that, but Australia’s Thurston believes there is a serious safety concern at stake.
The Kangaroos’ second-rower Luke Lewis damaged his shoulder crashing into an advertising sign at Cardiff and took no further part in the tournament.
The Old Trafford pitch is equally tight and players these days are not always inclined to give up their pursuit of the ball merely because it is going out of play.
“Hopefully, there’s padding there, so if they do go over they’re protected somehow,” Thurston said. “If there isn’t, we’ll see another incident like Lewie.”
Despite the non-appearance of the host nation in the final, the match became an official sell-out yesterday afternoon with the sale of the last few hospitality packages.
No doubt a few English ticket-holders will stay away but the vast majority, after last weekend’s disappointment at Wembley, will take the view that the only thing to do is to relax and enjoy the show.
The key men at Old Trafford: Two Kangaroos and two Kiwis who could decide the outcome of the World Cup final
At centre or full-back, Inglis, with his combination of size, speed and agility, is an athletic freak. Has 22 tries in 26 Australia appearances.
Johnathan Thurston (Australia)
If anyone doubted Australia’s ability to replace Darren Lockyer, Thurston’s skill at finding the special play has provided the answer.
Inglis’s South Sydney Rabbitohs team-mate is the biggest pest in rugby league and, if given any sort of gap, an electrifying runner from dummy-half.
Sonny Bill Williams
Any doubts about his commitment to rugby league can be set to one side. The best player in the world and one of the best forwards ever.