By John Davidson, (RLP RLWC Correspondent) Date: 26/10/13
Hosts England take on competition favourites Australia in the unlikely setting of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to begin the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
As part of a double-header with Wales vs Italy, and following rugby league in the UK’s strategy to expand the game away from its heartlands, the tone of the World Cup will be set with this blockbuster match.
If England can upset the Kangaroos it will provide a huge boost to the tournament and ensure bumper crowds throughout. It will also give England a very good chance of reaching the final at Old Trafford and of avoiding holders New Zealand in the semi-final.
But if Australia defeats the Poms, and by a fair margin, it could deflate interest and keep new or potential fans away. As the recent Olympics, Ashes and Lions wins over the Aussies have shown, the British love a winner and nothing more than beating their antipodean rivals.
Rugby league is a sport where Australia has had the dominance over the Old Dart for decades and it will take a monumental effort from England at this World Cup to reverse that trend.
A 14-12 loss to Italy last weekend in a warm-up match sent shivers down the spine of English fans and exacerbated fears that their team will be lambs to the slaughter for the men in green and gold.
This has been compounded by news of English forward Gareth Hock’s expulsion from the squad, for a breach of discipline, and England coach Steve McNamara abruptly walking out of a press conference this week. The spotlight is well and truly on the English team and it will be interesting to see if they can handle the heat on Saturday, or if they crash and burn.
While England were very poor against the Italians, if they were to have a blip that was the time to do it, and the English have too much talent not to be competitive on Saturday. With three Burgess brothers, Gareth Widdop, James Graham and New Zealand Warriors-bound Sam Tomkins, not to mention the best of Super League, this is the best England team for several years.
But they must not be over-awed by the occasion and must believe they can defeat a very powerful Australian side.
Around 50,000 fans at least are expected to fill the Millennium Stadium, one of the best in the UK and one that is usually home to soccer and rugby union matches. The Wallabies won a Rugby World Cup there in 1999 and many FA Cup finals have been played there. But rugby league is no stranger to the arena, as the Super League’s showpiece the Magic Weekend has been held there as well as other important league matches.
It is a famous and world-class stadium that dominates the Cardiff city-centre and provides excellent access to many nearby pubs. With a capacity of 72,500, it may not be filled for the opening match but a decent crowd will be on hand to make a lot of noise and to open the World Cup in style.
A Dancing With the Stars-style opening ceremony has been planned, featuring rugby league legends of old, and local newspapers like The Western Mail have been giving the tournament decent coverage considering it is a rugby-union stronghold.
Bars such as The Gatekeeper and The Prince of Wales will be packed with punters downing a pint or two of Brains, yes that really is what the most popular local beer is called, both before and after the game. Cardiff is a sporting city and one that prides itself on quality nightlife.
These fans should be treated to an engaging game but one I can’t see Australia losing. The Kangaroos have too much class, too much experience and too much pedigree to be knocked off here. With 10 members of Queensland’s fantastic Origin team in the side, they will field some impressive combinations and could blow the English off the park. Thrown in Brett Morris, James Tamou, Greg Bird and Paul Gallen and you add real speed, size, aggression and toughness.
One from Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Robbie Farah, Corey Parker, Jarryd Hayne and Nate Myles will miss out, most probably Hayne, but coach Tim Sheens has many options up his sleave.
England, on the other hand, have surprised with the decision to drop Bulldogs James Graham. They have also not picked talented rake Michael McIlloram, but have gone with three Burgess brothers and a likely halves partnership of Rangi Chase and either Kevin Sinfield or Gareth Widdop. Rob Burrow should provide some spark off the bench, but the Kangaroos will be just a little too good for the Poms in what promises to be a fiery encounter.
My tip is Australia to win by 12 points.
England: Carl Ablett, George Burgess, Sam Burgess, Thomas Burgess, Rob Burrow, Josh Charnley, Rangi Chase, Leroy Cudjoe, Liam Farrell, Brett Ferres, Ryan Hall, Chris Hill, Lee Mossop, James Roby, Kevin Sinfield (captain), Sam Tomkins, Kallum Watkins, Ben Westwood, Gareth Widdop.
Australia: Billy Slater; Brett Morris, Greg Inglis, Brent Tate, Darius Boyd; Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Matthew Scott, Cameron Smith (capt), James Tamou, Greg Bird, Sam Thaiday, Paul Gallen. Interchange: Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Robbie Farah, Corey Parker, Jarryd Hayne, Nate Myles