Ireland impress, England expects and Papua New Guinea comes to life – 5 talking points from the opening weekend of the Rugby League World Cupadministrator
The Rugby League World Cup has now completed its first week of action, with Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Ireland stealing the limelight in the opening round.
England produced an encouraging if ultimately fruitless performance against Australia, while depleted New Zealand exceeded expectations by comfortably accounting for Samoan.
But outside the “big three”, the real excitement surrounded Pacific Nations PNG, Fiji and Tonga, who all impressed in one-sided wins.
Ireland finally gave the Northern Hemisphere something to shout about with an accomplished win over Italy – and their trip to Papua New Guinea next weekend could be one of the highlights of the tournament.
He we pick out five main talking points from the opening round.
1. Australia are still the standard bearers
Mal Meninga’s side were overwhelming pre-tournament favourites, and although England stood toe-to-toe with them for much of their Melbourne clash, they still lack that killer Kangaroos cutting edge.
There’s no Jonathan Thurston or Greg Inglis this year – two of the best players in the world on their day.
But any team with Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith as its spine will know how to win matches, a mantra they proved yet again against England.
What also appears to have gone under the radar is how good they were defensively in restricting England to just one try, particularly on their own line in the second half.
The team to beat without any doubt.
2. England can be genuinely encouraged
The difference in margin of defeat to Australia between London in last year’s Four Nations and Melbourne on Friday was just four.
But the mood after the two matches could hardly be more marked.
England’s camp was shrouded in disappointment at their performance in the capital in 2016 (with the fact it ended their tournament doubtless a contributing factor).
But this weekend, from veteran coach Wayne Bennett down to test debutant Ben Currie, there was a feeling of real optimism despite yet another Australia defeat.
England still need to cut out needless errors and finish their sets better – but they tested and stretched the current holders and displayed a doggedness and resilience in defence clearly missing 12 months ago.
With star forward Sam Burgess missing over half the game through injury and impact prop Alex Walmsley all of it with a virus, there’s plenty of room for improvement should the teams meet again.
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There’s no doubt what were the best scenes of the opening weekend – the sell-out crowd in Port Moresby provided a thrilling backdrop for PNG’s 50-6 demolition of Wales.
This is the only country in the world where rugby league is the national sport – and it shows.
Enthusiasm and passion seeped out of the packed stands, and the noise that greeted every touch from Castleford-bound Garry Lo every time he touched the ball was breath-taking.
On the field, Michael Marum’s side lived up to expectations with a power-packed, polished performance that will have turned a few heads in potential quarter-finalist opponents England’s camp.
There are two more group matches to come in Port Moresby against Ireland and the USA – don’t miss them.
4. Ireland won’t fear the Kumuls
Playing in Papua New Guinea might be a massive challenge for any team in this World Cup – but don’t expect Ireland to shirk it.
Mark Aston’s team produced the first genuine shock of the tournament by beating Italy 36-12 – the Wolfhounds had as much as a 12 point start with some bookmakers prior to kick-off.
But they bullied and bashed their fellow European opponents, with the likes of Michael McIlorum, Brad Singleton and Oliver Roberts helping them dominate up front.
They will need every bit of that forward power – and the skills of evergreen half-back Liam Finn – if they are to win in Port Moresby on Sunday.
But Finn himself says that the Irish forwards fear no-one, and they will have an advantage over Wales in that the searing heat of Cairns will have acclimatised them for PNG.
It could be the clash of the group stages.
Read More Ireland captain insists it’s too early to think about dream quarter-final vs England despite Italy shock 5. Southern Hemisphere teams look dominant
Generally speaking it was a tough weekend for Northern Hemisphere teams.
Australia accounted for England, Tonga trampled over Scotland, PNG demolished Wales and Fiji dominated the USA.
The Pacific Nations all look strong, with most of them fuelled by large NRL contingents that know all about playing at the top level.
And Papua New Guinea have clearly been boosted by the title success of PNG Hunters in the Queensland Cup.
Scotland and Wales in particular are missing key figures and it’s shown – it won’t be easy for them to turn the tide next weekend against New Zealand and Fiji respectively.