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New format, same story for rugby league World Cup

October 23, 2013

Rugby league steps out from the shadow of its bigger, more popular rugby union brother for the next five weeks when 14 countries compete in a World Cup that has new teams, a new format but in all likelihood the same old script.

Five years after New Zealand upset Australia in its own backyard to win the sport’s biggest prize for the first time, the two southern hemisphere heavyweights have arrived in Europe ready to dominate the tournament once again.

Only England, the host nation boasting its strongest squad for some time, threatens to prevent Australia and New Zealand colliding in the Nov. 30 final at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.

And therein lies rugby league’s problem.

Unlike in football, cricket and even rugby union, the pool of potential World Cup winners in the 13-man code is shallow, making for a slew of blowouts that can blight the tournament until the semifinals.

Organizers have sought to sidestep that possibility by placing the weaker or emerging nations — including debutants Italy and the United States — in separate pools to the top teams. It gives them a chance of racking up some wins but hardly boosts the sport’s credibility.

All of rugby league’s big names are here — Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater for Australia, Sam Tomkins and Sam Burgess for England and, to the relief of organizers, Sonny Bill Williams for New Zealand.

Williams is the sport’s box office name who just three weeks ago wasn’t available for the tournament for family reasons. He changed his mind, giving New Zealand a major boost and making Australia not such a strong favorite.

“For us, you’d like to think if you are going to win this tournament, you’ll win it against the best players in the world, not against a team down in numbers,” Australia coach Tim Sheens said of Williams, who won rugby union’s World Cup with New Zealand in 2011 and is chasing a unique winner’s medal in both codes.

Australia, where the world’s strongest club sides play, has won the tournament nine times out of a possible 13 and once again has the most talented squad. It is also desperate to regain the trophy after losing to its archrival 34-20 in the 2008 final in Brisbane.

“There’s no talk of redemption for 2008,” Australia captain Cameron Smith said. “We have a totally different squad and the teams we are playing are totally different.”

For the likes of Smith, Slater and Thurston, all of whom turned 30 this year, it represents probably a final chance to lay their hands on the World Cup. Sheens acknowledged this week there would likely be a “changing of the guard” for the 2017 tournament.

Australia is in Group A with England, Ireland and Fiji, with the big two going head-to-head in the opening match in Cardiff on Saturday. Whoever wins should have a straight route to the final. The loser will likely face New Zealand in the semis.

England was being talked up as a real contender to win the trophy for the first time since 1972 - then it lost to rank outsider Italy in a warm-up match in Salford on Saturday. In terms of upsets, it ranks among the biggest on the international stage.

“We’ve got to take it as a kick up the backside or a wake-up call, whatever you want to call it,” England coach Steve McNamara said. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

Not the ideal way to go into a match against the world’s best team, ruining preparations that have been three years in the making. Things have got even worse, with forward Gareth Hock dumped from the squad on Tuesday for breaking an alcohol ban imposed until after the match. Hock, angry and embarrassed, said he drank with five other teammates but wouldn’t name them.

New Zealand headlines Group B, which also contains France, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. France is also coming off an embarrassing warm-up defeat, 22-18 at home to the United States on Friday.

“These results (in the warm-ups) will give some players an awareness of what the competition holds for everyone,” New Zealand coach Stephen Kearney said. “This time round, the depth of talent through all the groups is the best I’ve seen in all my times being involved in the World Cups.”

Three teams will qualify from Groups A and B, with the remaining quarterfinal spots taken by the winners of Group C (Scotland, Tonga, Italy) and Group D (Wales, Cook Islands, U.S.).

Games will be played primarily in England, but also in Wales (Cardiff, Wrexham and Neath), Ireland (Limerick) and France (Avignon and Perpignan).

Organisers have set themselves a target of selling 500,000 tickets across the 28 games — double the amount sold in 2000, the last time Britain hosted the World Cup.

“We are very confident about the numbers we’ll get,” said Sally Bolton, the tournament’s general manager, “but the most important thing is attracting new people to the sport.”

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