Whilst Group B contains three sides with very little history against each other, in Group C we’ve got ourselves a proper local derby. Both Samoa and Tonga will be ready and raring to go, and the power and unpredictability of the Pacific sides will no doubt be a theme that runs through this group. However, to provide us with a different taste for the palette, we also get to see an Ireland side who toughed their way to the tournament with two gritty draws against Lebanon and two large wins over Russia that were ultimately the difference between them going straight here instead of the going though the lottery of the repêchage.
Outside of Group A, this is probably the most star-studded group, and many established big-names in Super League and the NRL will be strutting their stuff here. It’s also perhaps the most obviously exciting group, considering it contains many players who’s style could best be described as ‘unpredictable’, and the number of forwards play in a volatile manner; whether it succeeds or it fails, it’s usually pretty spectacular. However, there are also plenty of fringe players looking for a platform on which to prove themselves, and boy have they got it.
Ireland come with quite a few decent players, but also with a lot of lower-grade players for whom this step-up will be demanding. That’s not to say that they won’t be able to pull it off, but coming into a group where the opposition will be combining ferocity with subtlety will test their resolve. They will have a decent level of firepower in their backs, and Pat Richards in particular has turned into a points machine as he has overcome a tricky start to become an established Super League performer. Ireland’s lack of star-quality means that there is less about them to obviously fear, although they appear to have a strong-team ethic which may be albe to overcome that. However, a lack of obvious choice play-makers outside of Graham Holyroyd may prove a trickier obstacle.
Samoa, for better or worse, have many former New Zealand veterans in their side. This means that they come pre-loaded with much international experience and a set of very talented players who play for some of the best teams in the world. However, even though their forwards are amongst the most pass-happy in the game they are still lacking in notable creativity at half, which could prove their undoing. However, if Ben Roberts and Nigel Vagana can prove to be effective at controlling the game, then the likes of David Solomona and Ali Lauitiiti are some of the most exciting forwards in the world, and a backline featuring the likes of George Carmont and Matt Utai should be respected as a bare minimum.
Tonga were the winners of the Pacific qualifying tournament, which should serve to show that this is not a team to be underestimated. They have also been the most successful of the pacific teams in the past few seasons, also managing to reach the Federation Shield Final ahead of Samoa and France, and they didn’t give up without a fight (literally) in losing 32-14. Tonga have a surprising level of strength in depth, mainly because the parent and grandparent rule opens up avenues towards the talent pools in Australia and New Zealand. Their pack won’t take a backward step and you can expect them to be fired up down the middle. Tonga’s trump card in this group may turn out to be the creative talent they have in the play-making positions, and the likes of Tevita Teo-Latu and Feleti Mateo will be needed to guide them around the park.
Ireland seem to be lacking in the skill and outstanding talent needed to overcome both of the Pacific sides, and this group should really come down to Samoa and Tonga’s meeting in Penrith on the 31st October. It should be a mouth-watering clash, and I expect an excellent display of the combination of brutality and beauty that makes Rugby League such a great game to watch. Picking a winner is really tough, but the odds do appear to be in Samoa’s favour. They have many seasoned internationals in their side, and crucially they aren’t the ones playing Ireland four days beforehand, Tonga are. However, Tonga are a determined side, and if we can guarantee antything in this group, it’s that they won’t go down without a fight (just, hopefully, not literally this time).