down cross

Kiwi chaos gives England a shot at reaching final

Australia set the bar high

Australia captain Cameron Smith and England counterpart Sean O'Loughlin meet in Friday's tournament opener
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Starts 10am Thursday

Only three nations have been crowned rugby league world champions since the first World Cup in 1954 and it’s long odds-on that two of the sport’s big three will do battle for the Paul Barriere Trophy again in Brisbane on December 2.

Reigning champions Australia are by far the most successful nation with ten triumphs in 14 editions and as is the norm, the 2017 World Cup is a case of just who can stop the all-conquering Kangaroos?

Since suffering a hugely surprising defeat at the hands of New Zealand in the 2008 World Cup final, Australia have won four of the six international tournaments they have entered including comprehensive victories over the Kiwis in the 2013 World Cup final (34-2) and last year’s Ladbrokes Four Nations (34-8).

Coach Mal Meninga unquestionably has the strongest squad at his disposal, albeit he will be without talismanic stand-off Johnathan Thurston who misses his international swansong with a shoulder injury.

The timeless Melbourne Storm spine of Billy Slater at full-back, scrum-half Cooper Cronk and hooker Cameron Smith are fresh from a dominant Premiership-winning campaign. And wherever you look, Meninga has strike players in abundance.

With the structure of the competition geared towards giving the big three the best possible chance of making the semi-finals, should they beat England in tomorrow’s opener – for which they are 2-11 – then the Kangaroos will almost certainly make the final.

Whether that merits them being chalked up at just 1-4 given they were double that price in last year’s Four Nations with Thurston in their ranks is open to question. But they are undoubtedly the team likeliest to be crowned world champions once again.

On previous international performances, New Zealand would be the obvious alternative.

World champions in 2008 and Four Nations winners twice since 2010, the Kiwis have established themselves as the Kangaroos’ nearest challengers.

However, their preparations were dealt a hammer blow earlier this month with the news that eight of their first-teamers had switched allegiance to Tonga causing bookmakers to shove the Kiwis out from 4-1 to 10-1.

Jason Taumalolo, Manu Ma’u, David Fusitu’a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Tui Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei have all defected to the Pacific Islanders, adding some spice to the nations’ Group B clash in Hamilton on November 11.

New Zealand’s problem is, however, a fantastic boon for second-favourites England.

The Knights have been plotting their revenge on the Kiwis since Shaun Johnson broke English hearts in the dying seconds of the 2013 semi-final and with New Zealand’s upheaval they have an opportune moment to go one step better.

The RFL turned to legendary Aussie coach Wayne Bennett last year in a bid to end the Antipodean domination of international rugby league and while the 2016 Four Nations didn’t pan out the way he would have hoped, the usually understated Bennett has been upbeat in the lead-up to tomorrow’s opening bout.

As usual, their strength lies in the forwards. A pack containing the likes of Sam Burgess, James Graham, Elliott Whitehead, James Roby and Josh Hodgson has the power and skill to compete with any nation but it is the decision-making in the backs that will prove crucial.

England scrum-half Luke Gale (left) gets a pass away

Man of Steel Luke Gale and Gareth Widdop are the men tasked with directing England around the paddock. The success of that partnership will be key to untapping the potential within the side.

In all probability, it will be between England and New Zealand as to who joins the Aussies in the final and it could England who rock up at Suncorp Stadium.

Tonga have taken up the mantle as the choice of the hipsters after eight New Zealanders and Andrew Fifita of Australia pledged themselves to their cause.

Available at 100-1 four weeks ago, the Tongans are now 25-1 clear best of the rest but for all the fervour surrounding them, they still lack the services of a high-calibre playmaker in their ranks.

Of the lesser nations, Italy make the most appeal at 13-8 to top Group D.

Led by Hull’s Mark Minichiello, the Azzurri look set to battle it out with Fiji for a quarter-final berth and a talented squad could pip the 2013 semi-finalists.

England to reach final
4pts 5-4 Betfair, Paddy Power
Italy to win Group D
1pt 13-8 Betway

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New Zealand's preparations were dealt a hammer blow with the news that eight of their first-teamers had switched allegiance to Tonga
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