The greatest sporting extravaganza since the Olympics hits Britain’s shores this weekend when the 2013 Rugby League World Cup kicks off in Cardiff with an England vs. Australia and Wales vs. Italy double header. Expect thrills, skills and colossal collisions as the finest exponents of the world’s toughest, most action packed team sport fight it out for a place in the final at Old Trafford on 30th November.
The drama is already mounting even before the tournament begins. New Zealand’s defence of the trophy has been boosted by the late addition of multi-sports phenomenon, Sonny Bill Williams, to their squad. England, astonishingly, will feature three brothers in their pack as the Burgesses attempt to go one World Cup winning sibling better than the Charltons of 1966. But they will be without the combustible Gareth Hock – expelled from the team’s training camp for indiscipline on the eve of the tournament.
Meanwhile, favourites Australia are lurking silently like a shark off a Sydney beach and the tournament features an unprecedented number of unpredictable outfits with the potential to upset the favourites such as Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa, the USA and Italy.
It all promises to be a dramatic and spectacular show over the next month. More than most sports, rugby league is best experienced live and nothing can beat being there at the venues across the British Isles and France, from Bristol to Perpignan and London to Limerick. But the action will also be live on the BBC (who will be offering a regular highlights show too) and Premier Sports.
Sabotage Times will be providing regular updates throughout the tournament, starting by running the rule over the runners and riders.
Three qualify from the quarter-finals of this group, with the opening game between England and Australia being particularly crucial. The seeding gives the winners of that one a big chance of avoiding holders New Zealand in the knockout stages.
ENGLAND: The preparation has been punctilious in creating England’s best chance to win a World Cup for four decades. They have a mighty pack, much of it battle-hardened in Australia’s elite NRL competition, in the immense shape of the Burgess brothers and James Graham, and outstanding backs such as Ryan Hall and Josh Charnley. The big question is whether the half-backs Rangi Chase, Gareth Widdop and Sinfield can link the two together.
Star Man: Spectacular full back Sam Tomkins has been earmarked for immortality since the start of his career. The time is now, Sam.
Sabotage Times Prediction: We are giddy optimists but not without reason - winners.
AUSTRALIA: The perennial favourites. Their deep playing resources and stratospherically strong domestic competition make that inevitable. The Kangaroos seem to get bigger, faster, fitter and more skilful every time they reconvene, with an endless supply of even greater stars to replace the “greatest evers” who have just retired. It is hard to spot a weakness in their ranks. But sometimes somebody susses one out and an Australian triumph is far from inevitable – as New Zealand showed when crashing the coronation in Brisbane last time around.
Star Man: Billy Slater, Jonathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk….take the squad photo and stick a pin in it, really. But Greg Inglis is the best athlete ever to have laced a rugby boot and would be a nightmare to stop even if he was wearing flip-flops.
ST Prediction: The Kiwis have developed a knack of unsettling the Kangaroos in the big games. Let’s hope England have learned it too. Losing finalists.
IRELAND: The Irish have some great assets. Mark Aston is a clever coach, with a smart half-back, Liam Finn, and points machine Pat Richards at his disposal. No doubt they will be fired up for a tilt at the English and Thomond Park in Limerick will be buzzing when the Aussies arrive. But their progress in the tournament depends most on their first game against Fiji on 28th October.
Star Man: The versatile Scott Grix catalysed Huddersfield’s outstanding team chemistry when winning the Super League Leader’s Shield this season. Ireland need him to bring his alchemy to their ranks too.
ST Prediction: A surplus of spirit might not make up for a shortage of top quality in this company. Mind you, we all said that last time and they flirted with the semi-finals. Out in the group stage, but only after causing a few scares (probably to England).
FIJI: Team spirit was crucial to “The Bati’s” success in reaching the semi-finals in 2008 and they are cranking it up again. The Fijian’s communal singing is a joy to behold (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQvp4dCmfS8&feature=youtu.be ) and, like several of the island teams, they have found themselves an adopted home in the UK, complete with a “local” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/24608368 ). In fact they have two, and will also be backed by the significant Fijian community in Rochdale when they play Ireland there. There is plenty of ability in the ranks too, meaning England and Australia should not get too wrapped up in their battle with each other.
Star Man: The brilliant Akuila Uate and Sisa Waqa will cause havoc out wide if they get enough ball to run onto. That depends on the legendary Petero Civoniceva producing one last big shift before retirement and driving the pack forward. He has spent a long career doing just that without fail, so I think he might.
ST Prediction: Will make the Quarter Finals and a lot of friends.
Group B is probably the toughest section of the lot. The opening fixtures, Papua New Guinea v. France and New Zealand v. Samoa could be the highlights of the first round. PNG and France are evenly matched with similar combinations of fire and flair. Meanwhile, decades of migration give NZ v. Samoa an incendiary State of Origin-style “mate against mate” feel.
NEW ZEALAND: A fearsome Haka aside, you are never quite sure what you are going to get from the World Cup holders. They will either be nigh-on unbeatable or erratically undone by moments of madness. Indifference is unlikely. Hooker Isaac Luke is emblematic of their unpredictability. He is a lethal runner and brutal defender but prone to disgracing himself by doing something ludicrous.
Star Man: A year ago the idea of the Kiwis going in to the tournament without the magical Benji Marshall at scrum-half would have felt like the sky falling in. But his retirement from rugby league has barely been noticed since the rise of Shaun Johnson, who matches Marshall for ball skills and beats him for pace.
ST Prediction: Anything could happen. Let’s say losing semi-finalists, but for goodness sake do not bet on it.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: The world’s most rugby league mad nation, where the game can provoke riots or street parties at the drop of a hat. An earlier Kumuls excursion to the World Cup in 1995 left behind such memories and a supply chain of popular players that they will effectively have a home town crowd behind them in Hull. The always entertaining PNG are bursting with ability but have sometimes struggled for sheer bulk and organisation. They look better supplied with the former this time and the top notch coaching duo of Adrian Lam and Mal Meninga will take care of the latter.
Star Man: PNG have established stars like Paul Aiton, Ray Thompson and Neville Costigan. But the usual story is for one of their previously little known players from their domestic competition to burst on to the scene. It pains me to say it, but Hull KR’s new signing Enoch Maki might be the one this time.
ST Prediction: Losing semi-finalists and even greater popularity in the East Yorkshire area.
SAMOA: As was indelicately pointed out by Jules in “Pulp Fiction”, there are some big lads in Samoa. Some of them, like Tony Puletua and David Fa’alogo, are stellar rugby league players in the UK and down under too. “Toa Samoa” have an experienced looking squad and an emerging star in Anthony Milford. They could go far if they can knit it all together. Entertainment guaranteed.
Star Man: Expect some humungous hits, especially when they play the Kiwis. They have plenty of players who can deliver them, with the extravagantly coiffed Iosia Soliola being a particularly spectacular exponent.
ST Prediction: Quarter finals and a trail of battered bodies behind them.
FRANCE: Another tricky one to predict. The French squad is based around the successful Super League side from Perpignan, the Catalans Dragons, so continuity is not a problem. They will also have two home games in front of wildly partisan crowds in the game’s South West France heartlands. But they can, by the exalted standards of rugby league, be a bit fragile and may struggle to cope with the strength of their group opponents. Top prop Remi Casty needs to do some major fronting up before he heads off to play for Aussie champions, the Sydney Roosters, and to lay a platform for exciting young backs like Morgan Escaré.
Star Man: Thomas Bosc is one of the best generals in global rugby league.
ST Prediction: The French could easily end up being involved in three belting games but lose all of them. Out at the group stage.
The seeding for the tournament has been cleverly designed to ensure as many closely competitive games as possible and only one team will go through to the quarter finals from groups C and D. Until a few weeks ago, Tonga looked hot favourites for this section but Italy’s recent recruitment and form suggests that it will be a titanic contest. Scotland’s half backs might have a say in matters too.
SCOTLAND: One of the ongoing sagas of Super League has been how the superb “Man of Steel” (player of the season), the dual-qualified Danny Brough, has ended up playing for Scotland rather than England. Some suggest a big mouth and an (unfairly) lingering reputation for refuelling issues. The upshot is that outsiders Scotland have ended up with arguably the best half-back combination in the competition, as Brough is joined by Peter Wallace of the Brisbane Broncos. Total commitment to the cause is a certainty from the whole team but the quality half-backs might not find enough outlets to capitalise on their creativity.
Star Man: It has to be Brough. If England fail to win the trophy, expect to hear the phrase “why the hell didn’t we pick Danny Brough?” echoing around the land.
ST Prediction: Out in the group stage.
ITALY: The Italians scraped past Russia, Serbia and Lebanon to qualify and were the longest of long shots. Then they began controversially trawling Sydney’s Italian community (Jack Wilshere look away now) and beat England in the final warm-up game last Saturday. All of a sudden, something special looks possible.
Star Man: The ageing but utterly excellent full-back, Anthony Minichiello. He would walk, or more likely glide elegantly with no-one laying a hand on him, into any other side in the competition apart from the one from the land of his birth, Australia.
ST Prediction: A rapidly improving heritage act but not sure they can get pasta Tonga.Out in the group stage but only just.
TONGA: “Mate Ma’a Tonga” are a small nation but a big outfit that is built for rugby league. The squad is packed with top class players from the world’s best leagues, all of whom love coming together to represent their homeland. A side possessing any one of Brent Kite, Willie Manu or Daniel Tupou, to pick a few at random, would be a handful. Put them all together and it will take a massive defensive effort to hold them out. If they do win the group, their quarter final could be against New Zealand, where several of the team have lived, or the mother of all derbies against Samoa. In either eventuality, we recommend crawling through broken glass, if necessary, to see it.
Star Man: The Tongans have more players with star quality than anyone bar Australia. But we are going for the national hero, Fuifui Moimoi. Great name, big character, huge hair and an explosive forward who will set the tone for his team.
ST Prediction: Narrow losers of a battle royale against the Kiwis in the quarters.
The tournament structure has each of the three teams in groups C and D playing one game against an opponent from the other section. This complicates matters for Wales, who have landed a tie against a suddenly competitive looking Italy. The romance of the World Cup is also encapsulated by the improbable international rugby league clash of the Cook Islands versus the USA in Bristol on 30th October.
WALES: There was once a time when Wales RL largely consisted of union converts with shaky foundations beneath them. That has all changed and the current squad is refreshingly based on the first fruits of some substantial grassroots development. Home advantage and the least challenging group should help them but a lack of experience at the highest level might mean this is one tournament too soon.
Star Man: Several of the promising youngsters will show up well. We’ll take Gil Dudson of Wigan to enjoy the limelight and do a bit of barnstorming from prop.
ST Prediction: Quarter finals and even more kids rolling up at junior league clubs in the principality.
COOK ISLANDS: They are the tournament minnows but possess a ridiculously high ratio of good professionals per head of population. Their fellow islanders from Tonga will probably have too much for them but the Cooks could certainly give Wales and the USA a grilling (sorry).
Star Man: Isaac Luke’s control and guidance from half-back will be crucial to their chances.
ST Prediction: out at the group stage but do not bet against them upsetting Wales or the US.
USA: The Americans have mirrored the Italians by controversially making liberal use of the parentage rules to bolster their squad at the expense of some of the home-based players who got them to the tournament. Conversely, though, the influx has turned them from heartwarming story to potentially serious competitors, as they showed by winning a recent friendly in France.
Star Man: Ex-Hull KR stalwart Clint Newton is the South Carolina-born son of a professional golfer and some might recognise the self-regard that comes with that pedigree (especially if you are a Hull FC fan like me). Still, with gritted teeth, I have to say he is tough competitor and will be a strong leader for the Tomahawks.
ST Prediction: Expansionism versus parochialism is the eternal rugby league dilemma. A successful USA would be great for the game but success for Clint would definitely not make my day. Out in the first round, please.
Bring it on!