In theory, you should feel sorry for Papua New Guinea.
When the power brokers at the RLIF decided to try to create the ‘Super Group’ to increase the chances of competitive matches (something that doesn’t seem to matter at other sports’ tournaments, but oh well), they had to include another team with the big three of Australia, New Zealand and England. The team chosen to be that sacrificial lamb really could have been any one of the remaining nations at the World Cup. It was chosen to be Papua New Guinea. So the Kumuls now have to see how well they match up against the best Rugby League playing nations in the world, a massive jump up in quality from the usual level of opposition that they are usually given (and succeed against).
This will be the hardest group, since it contains by far and away the three (arguably four) best teams at the World Cup. However, in that the aim of a group stage is to reach the knockout stages, it will also be the easiest as three of the four teams will gain straight passage to the Semi-Finals (instead of having to win the group to progress to a play-off for a spot in the semis as teams in the other two groups have to do). This removes some of the tension from the group as it has quite obviously been geared to give Australia, New Zealand and England safe passage to the semi-finals and to depose of Papua New Guinea. However, there’s a lot to be said for the importance of mental battles in elite level sport, and if any of the teams in this group can impose their will on the other competitors, it sets up the knockout phase interestingly. After all, one of these matches will be a preview of one of the semi-finals, and chances are we will also see a dress-rehearsal for the Final as well.
The fact of the matter is that the winner of the World Cup will come from this group. Theoretically, it should be Australia. After all, they’ve won the damn thing every time it has been contested since 1975. Indeed, since 1978 they’ve only lost one major tournament. However, that one loss was as recent as 2005. Australia have been dominant in the last few seasons against New Zealand, but they have been playing against under-strength sides. They also lost to Great Britain in Sydney two years ago after a week of the Aussie media lambasting the inferiority of the Lions. This tournament will be a good indicator as to whether the gap between Australia and the other nations has stayed as wide as it might seem, or whether we should pay heed to the signs that it has begun to close. This Group will be a titanic contest in itself, and the physical and mental battles that will be won and lost here will go a long way to deciding the destiny of the World Cup once the group is over.
The big dogs in this group are the Kangaroos. If there’s one thing Australia know how to do, it’s to win. Having won tournaments on foreign soil on a consistent basis over the last two decades, now is their chance to take the big prize on home soil. The Kangaroos aren’t exactly the kind of team who rely on home support, but it’s going to be with them for this tournament. Even though they’ve been shorn of a few stars in the last year, Australia’s strength in depth is scary and they will still be fielding a side that will be expected to make their way to glory. Indeed, if anything there could be too much pressure on the ‘roos to succeed. It should be interesting to see how they cope with home pressure.
England arrive in Australia with a serious hope of overturning the Aussie monopoly on the trophy. The Tony Smith era has so far gone pretty well, with convincing wins over France and Wales preceded by Great Britain’s (which essentially was the current England side) successes against France and New Zealand. The level of ruthlessness in England’s games in 2008 has been especially pleasing, because Australia and New Zealand are not sides naturally disposed to giving out second chances. However, it’s unlikely that the Kangaroos and the Kiwis will roll over like the Tricolores and the Dragons did. Considering the number of injuries in the backs that England have suffered in the last few months, and the, erm, interesting decision to only take four props, England are probably somewhat of an unknown factor in this World Cup. Theoretically they should be serious challengers, and I obviously hope that they are able to bring it together on the big stage like no English side has been able to in the last few decades. However I’ve been burned by optimism before and it will be interesting to see if England can step up a level.
The big variable in this group is New Zealand. A mere three years ago the Kiwis became the first team other than Australia to be reasonably able to claim to be the best in the World in about three decades with their 24-0 victory over Australia in the 2005 Tri-Nations Final (also beating them in the group stages). Since then they’ve simply not lived up to that standard. Admittedly they were heroic in defeat in the 2006 Tri-Nations, doing their best Great Britain impression by losing to Australia in a last-gasp manner twice (including losing to an extra-time, sudden-death Darren Lockyer try in the final) but since then they’ve been mediocre at best and downright terrible at worst, being shut out by both Australia and Great Britain in 2007, and almost getting overturned by France. However, they have also been without several key players for many of those games and there should be a greater talent level in the squad of this World Cup. If the New Zealand of the last few years turns up, then Papua New Guinea will be eyeing their game with interest. However, if Stephen Kearney (and Wayne Bennett) can get New Zealand back up to the levels of performance circa 2005-2006, then Australia and England will definitely be worried.
All of which leaves Papua New Guinea. Considering that there are three spots in the semi-finals from this group, and that the other three teams in the group make up the Tri-Nations cartel, it’s quite obvious they are here to supposedly make up the numbers. Considering that they are clearly one of the stronger sides outside the big three, they have understandably vented frustration about the way the deck has been stacked against them. In either of the other two groups they would be potential group winners. To make the most of a bad situation, I think they should see it as a backhanded compliment. After all, since the purpose of the lop-sided group arrangement is to reduce the number of mismatches, the Kumuls must be seen as good enough to put up a fight against the big boys. And let’s face it, would they get the opportunity to play the big three countries at their national sport in any other circumstances? I think their players will relish the chance to play with the big boys, and perhaps they’ll raise their game. They have enough talented players to not completely rule them out. The way the groups are set out, the teams in Groups B and C are playing-off for the right to be deemed worthy of playing the big three. The Kumuls have already been deemed worthy.
My expectations? I think this group should go to form for the most part, and I see Australia taking top spot. Papua New Guinea will probably lose all their matches, but they’ll give at least one of the sides (probably England in the opener) a run for their money. I expect that England and New Zealand will be vying for the second place spot, and an eventual meeting in the Semis. However, it will be a closely fought group and it would not surprise me too much if Australia were caught napping by one of the other nations or even if Papua New Guinea sprang a surprise (England won’t relish their confrontation in the Townsville heat). At the very least, I hope we get to see some of the best players in the world have to up their game. That is, after all, one of the main purposes of international competition.