Aussie mind games fool no one – they’re huge favourites at RLWC but England fancy crack at Kangaroos

England won their penultimate warm-up match against the Combined Nations All Stars

The Rugby League World Cup will feature 16 nations competing in 31 matches in the men’s competition, but it will boil down to one very difficult question: How do you beat Australia?

The Kangaroos are the mighty force in international Rugby League and before the tournament has even begun, they are huge favourites to win in England, when the finals are played here through October and November.

Australia’s dominance – some bookies are offering odds of 3-1 on – stems from the popularity of the game down-under, which dwarfs every other nation, even England, and translates into more money, power and better players.

England won their penultimate warm-up match against the Combined Nations All Stars

England won their penultimate warm-up match against the Combined Nations All Stars

However, stout English hearts hold hopes of an upset – despite Australia making 14 of the 15 finals since the tournament began in France in 1954, and the fact they have lifted the trophy on 11 of those occasions.

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England coach Shaun Wane has talent and battle-hardened experience to choose from as he seeks to upset the odds, including NRL stalwarts, second row, Elliott Whitehead, 32, who has made 154 appearances for Canberra Raiders and prop Tom Burgess, 30, who has amassed 207 outings for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

‘[I] imagine Shaun Wane’s expectation is: We lift the trophy,’ said England legend James Graham, who holds the record number of appearances for the national side and has played at three World Cups, including a defeat in the final to Australia in 2017. ‘That’s it. That’s got to be the expectation.

‘How you get there is a different story,’ added Graham, who made his name at St Helen’s before moving to Australia where he played for Canterbury and St George Illawarra. ‘That’s about growing the belief within the camp.’

The former forward told The Roar in Australia: ‘The long-term expectation is to win the trophy, we use our strengths: like the crowd, like the forward pack, like the classy touches out wide. 

‘I’m excited. I’m not going to get too carried away because it’s going to be a very difficult tournament and you need the stars to align sometimes but I’ve got the upmost confidence in this England team… the potential is there to go all the way.’

England’s latest outing was an 18-4 win over the Combined Nations All Stars at the Halliwell Jones Stadium at Warrington in June. It was only Wane’s third match in charge of the Three Lions in two years, as a result of the Covid pandemic. 

There were bright performances, not least from Catalans Dragons full-back and England skipper Sam Tomkins, and the win was achieved without the Aussie exiles Whitehead and Burgess. 

England have one more warm up to play, against Fiji in Salford on October 7. 

Australia were heavy favourites and beat England in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final

Australia were heavy favourites and beat England in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final

But the Three Lions put up a brave defence and lost 6-0 in a tight and nervy affair in Brisbane

But the Three Lions put up a brave defence and lost 6-0 in a tight and nervy affair in Brisbane

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD RANKINGS 
RANK/COUNTRY % PERFORMANCE 
1.New Zealand 100%
2.Tonga  68% 
3.England  64% 
4.Australia  52% 
5.Papua New Guinea  36% 
6.Fiji  29% 
7.Samoa  17% 
8.Serbia  17% 
9.France  16% 
10.Malta  14% 
International Rugby League world rankings are based upon results over the past 4 years of competition. They are expressed as a percentage of the Number 1 ranked nation   

At the World Cup, England will be backed by a boisterous home crowd with the country developing a taste for success following the Lionesses victory at Euro 2022 and a strong showing in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

In truth, there are at least four teams who will fancy a swing at the Aussies, with New Zealand installed as second favourites, followed by Tonga, England and Samoa. Papua New Guinea are also expected to be competitive and Fiji have reached the semi-finals at the previous three tournaments.

Australia, of course, are trying to persuade anyone who will listen that they are definitely not the favourites for the tournament, which kicks off on October 15 when England play Samoa at St James’s Park in Newcastle.

The basis of the Aussies’ claim is the International Rugby League World Rankings.

Tom Burgess has flourished in the NRL and will be a key part of England's World Cup plans

Tom Burgess has flourished in the NRL and will be a key part of England’s World Cup plans

The Kangaroos are now ranked fourth, with New Zealand in top spot followed by Tonga and England, but only because the Covid pandemic has limited the number of international matches. The rankings are based on results over the past four years.

Even Troy Grant, the IRL chairman, has admitted the current rankings are ‘skewed’.

But Australia assistant coach Adrian Lam is happy to use them as extra motivation and an opportunity to play a few mind games.

‘We’re not favourites for this World Cup at the moment,’ said Lam this week.

‘There’s a lot of pressure on Australia this year,’ he added. ‘[Australia] are ranked fourth…

‘It is something that doesn’t sit right with Mal Meninga (head coach) and the team and the players no doubt. We’ll make sure we’ll give it a good crack.’

There are only two sides in this competition that have ever won it: Australia and New Zealand. Great Britain has won the World Cup, in 1954, 1960 and 1972, but now the home nations compete individually.

The Kangaroos stranglehold on the sport reflects the numbers playing and watching in Australia.

England won their latest warm-up game against the Combined Nations All Stars in June

England won their latest warm-up game against the Combined Nations All Stars in June

According to International Rugby League, Australia had 178,000 registered players in 2021, compared to 44,000 in England, 28,000 in New Zealand and 25,000 in Papua New Guinea.

Greece, who are in England’s group and play the hosts at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, on October 29, have only 170 players.

The NRL also commands much greater viewing figures than any other nation.

The NRL Grand Final last year achieved a TV and online audience of almost 3.6 million, compared to the Super League Grand Final, which drew an estimated 400,000 viewers on Sky.

Inevitably, this translates into sponsorship and wages, which allows the NRL to attract the top talent from around the world and create the highest-quality competition, as well as sharpening the skills of the native players.

England manager Shaun Wane has only taken charge of three matches in two years

England manager Shaun Wane has only taken charge of three matches in two years

Some Australian and New Zealand players, including Andrew Fifita (above) have elected to play for their heritage nations, which may create fiercer competition at the RLWC

Some Australian and New Zealand players, including Andrew Fifita (above) have elected to play for their heritage nations, which may create fiercer competition at the RLWC

The salary cap for a club in the NRL in 2022 is £5.5m, compared to £2.1m in the Super League.

When Australia faced England in the 2017 final, the bookmakers’ made the Kangaroos 5-1 on and their opponents 13-2 against, such was the Aussies’ dominance in the sport.

However, Australia only just edged the final at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, beating England 6-0 in a tight and nervy affair.

And there is more hope for Australia’s challengers this year as players continue to elect to represent their heritage nations.

At the last World Cup in 2017, prop Andrew Fifita, who had played for Australia, and lock forward Jason Taumololo, who had represented New Zealand, both accepted invitations to play for Tonga.

Brian To'o who plays for the Penrith Panthers in the NRL has chosen to play for Samoa

Brian To’o who plays for the Penrith Panthers in the NRL has chosen to play for Samoa

This time around, second-row New Zealand-born Felise Kaufusi has played for Tonga and Australia, but has pledged to turn out for his heritage nation at the World Cup.

Prop Josh Papali’i was born in New Zealand, moved to Australia at the age of five and went on to claim 11 caps for the Kangaroos, but he has now chosen to represent Samoa, along with Sydney-born Penrith Panthers winger Brian To’o.

‘When players are sticking their hand up and choosing Samoa or Tonga, what happened with Fifita and Taumololo in 2017 was the start of that and it’s a tidal wave,’ Rugby League World Cup chief executive Jon Dutton told loverugbyleague.com.

‘We now start off with five men’s teams who legitimately based on selections could lift the trophy. That is super exciting.’

Although Dutton admits it is also ‘a bit daunting’ for English hopes.

Even so, England have been placed in the easier side of the competition draw in that they avoid the two strongest teams. If they overcome Samoa and win Group A, they will expect to meet Papua New Guinea or Tonga in the quarter finals, and one of those three in the semi finals, assuming they progress. Australia and New Zealand are in the opposite half of the draw.

If England should come up against their old rivals Australia in the final, they will be looking for their first win in 14 meetings. England’s last triumph was in the group stage of the 1995 World Cup, although they subsequently lost to Australia in the final.

Since 1975, the Three Lions have only won two Test matches against the Kangaroos, losing 13 and drawing one out of 16 encounters.



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