Tom Burgess in action against Samoa

The World Cup will officially kick off on Saturday at St James’ Park in Newcastle hosts England take on the might of Samoa.

It is an intriguing clash with many tipping Toa Samoa, thanks to the influx of NRL stars, to be darkhorses for the tournament.

The Pacific nation has named an exceptionally strong XVII for the opening match, which includes Penrith’s Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton,  Izack Tago and Spencer Leniu.

Anthony Milford will start in the halves alongside Luai, while the front-row includes Parramatta prop Junior Paulo and Canberra enforcer Josh Papali’i.

It is easily the best Samoan side ever assembled and expectations are high that this team can make history like Tonga did in the 2017 World Cup.

But Samoa has a history of struggling to fulfil its potential and has never beaten England in a competitive game.

The hosts are on home soil and will have home support and the local conditions in their favour.

England are coming off a 50-0 drubbing of Fiji last weekend in Salford, which will no doubt boost their confidence.

Shaun Wane’s side have been weakened by a clutch of injuries to key players before the World Cup has even begun.

St Helens’ stars Jonny Lomax, Alex Walmsley, Mark Percival and Lewis Dodd are all missing through injury, while hooker James Roby has retired from international footy.

Along with the retirements of James Graham and Sam Burgess, and injuries to the likes of Gareth Widdop and Liam Farrell, this is a vastly different England outfit that made it all the way to the final five years ago and pushed the Kangaroos hard.

One of the high points for the English is the inclusion of outside backs Dom Young and Herbie Farnworth.

The two youngsters have endured impressive seasons in the NRL, with Newcastle and Brisbane respectively, and will add athleticism and try-scoring power to the hosts.

Sydney Roosters Victor Radley has also boosted Wane’s options, after electing to represent the country of his father.

The back-rower has represented Australia and NSW at junior levels, but has decided to join the England set-up, which is a boost to their forward pack.

Wane has a dilemma on whether to plump for skipper Sam Tomkins at fullback, who has been nursing a knee injury, or to go for Saints’ young gun Jack Welsby.

George Williams and Marc Sneyd are likely to get the nod in the halves, while England will field a strong pack with the likes of Matty Lees, Morgan Knowles, Elliot Whitehead, Tom Burgess and Luke Thompson.

But they will be without Wigan and former Canberra second-rower John Bateman, who is suspended.

This fixture is a vastly important fixture for both sides, with victory ensuring an easier path to the semi-final stage.

The winner will avoid Tonga in the quarter-finals and face either Papua New Guinea or Cook Islands in the last eight.

The loser will be set on a collision course with the Mate Ma’a in the quarter-finals, emphasising just how vital success in Newcastle is.

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John Davidson
John is a freelance journalist who has been writing about rugby league for the past decade. He covered the 2013 and 2017 World Cups, has appeared on TV and radio, and been published in The I-Paper, The Guardian, The Sun, The Mirror, League Express, Inside Sport magazine and Big League. He writes regularly for Forty-20 magazine, League Weekly and co-hosts the podcasts By the Balls and Six To Go.