Almost a year after a hugely successful World Cup, international rugby league belatedly returns to the spotlight in Brisbane on Saturday.
The Four Nations is no World Cup in terms of profile and it is possible to argue that much of the momentum of last autumn has already been lost. On the other hand, there is international competition going on all over the world, including a European Cup in which Ireland have just beaten France, and a tournament in the Balkans.
Now it is time for the four strongest teams in the world to take to the stage, although none of them is as strong as they would like to be.
In the opening match of the double-header at Suncorp Stadium, for instance, England cannot call upon the best forward in the world, Sam Burgess, because he is on his way to rugby union with Bath – although his assimilation will be delayed by the cheekbone he fractured in winning the National Rugby League Grand Final playing for South Sydney Rabbitohs.
His departure, which some optimists predict will only be temporary, is a major blow to league, only partially softened by him leaving behind his twin brothers, Tom and George, as keepers of the flame.
Sean O’Loughlin’s reign as England captain has begun inauspiciously, with him having to withdraw from the side to face Samoa with a quad muscle strain. It is the only down side of selecting the Wigan loose-forward as the successor to former England captain Kevin Sinfield; his fitness is too often a day-by-day proposition.
His absence gives opportunities to two players. Hull forward Joe Westerman makes his Test debut, finally fulfilling the promise he showed as a teenager, while James Graham takes over as captain, which guarantees that England will be led with passion by a player still seething at losing in the NRL Grand Final.
It is a decent-looking England side and should be good enough to beat Samoa, who qualified for the fourth place in the tournament by beating Fiji. They consist largely of first-graders from Britain and Australia, including giants like Mose Masoe of St Helens and Frank Pritchard, so they are not to be taken lightly, even though their preparation has been marred by three players being dropped after a brawl outside a Brisbane nightclub. Reni Maitua, Tautau Moga and Sauaso Sue have also been fined £5,500 for their part in the incident.
Australia look a little vulnerable in a few positions, notably in their lack of cover for Greg Inglis at full-back. Billy Slater is injured, while Jarryd Hayne is on his way to try out for the NFL – a game he has never played. His bizarre move has added fuel to those who argue that league, even in Australia, is not big enough to hold on to its superstars – as shown by the exits of the likes of Burgess, Hayne and Sonny Bill Williams.
There are 12 potential debutants in the Australian squad and no Johnathan Thurston or Paul Gallen, to name but two of their most influential players of recent years. Such is the depth of talent in Queensland and New South Wales, however, that Australia will start as tournament favourites, with new stars no doubt coming to the fore.
New Zealand have a good record against them in recent tournaments, however, and in Shaun Johnson they have a player who could dominate the competition. The Penrith winger, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, has been ruled out for six weeks with a broken foot, which will spare commentators a few pronunciation pitfalls.
Organisation and preparation is likely to play a large part in the teams’ results as there is a lot of travelling to be done over the next three weeks.
England’s second match is against Australia at Melbourne a week on Sunday, followed six days later by New Zealand in Dunedin. The final is in Wellington on 15 November and England must at least reach it if they are to justify the weird system of having the national coach, Steve McNamara, based in Sydney.
There are already rumblings that McNamara has shown himself to be out of touch by not picking a single player from St Helens, the side that won the League Leaders’ Trophy and the Super League Grand Final. The likes of Tommy Makinson and the two props, Kyle Amor and Alex Walmsley, certainly had a strong claim. On the other hand, he should know more about Australian and New Zealand players than any England or Great Britain coach has ever known.
Whether that makes a decisive difference to England’s ability to beat them will be revealed over the next four weekends.
Stage set for stars: Four players to watch
1. James Graham (England)
Whether he is captain or not, Graham will lead from the front in the way that has made him one of the most respected forwards in the NRL with Canterbury Bulldogs. Plays on a short fuse, so there is a chance of him exploding.
2. Ben Roberts (Samoa)
Samoa’s stand-off was one of the most exciting players in the game when he broke through with the Bulldogs. He has lost his way of late, but this is his chance to show what he can do, ahead of his move to Castleford.
3. Greg Inglis (Australia)
In Billy Slater and Jarryd Hayne’s absence, Inglis can play in his favourite full-back role, as he does for South Sydney. This will not weaken Australia one iota, because he is every bit as big a handful bringing back the ball from deep.
4. Shaun Johnson (New Zealand)
A half-back who is both constructive tactically and fast enough to go on his own. Also an excellent goal-kicker and, in the absence of Johnathan Thurston, an outstanding candidate to emerge as the player of the tournament.
England v Samoa 7am BST, Brisbane, BBC 2
Australia v New Zealand 9.30am BST, Brisbane
New Zealand v Samoa 3am GMT, Whangarei
Australia v England 5am GMT, Melbourne, BBC 2
New Zealand v England 7am GMT, Dunedin, BBC 2
Australia v Samoa 5am GMT, Wollongong
Final 15 November
First in group v second 8.30am GMT, Wellington, BBC 2
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