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We may be in the middle of a State of Origin series in Australia but it’s also giving us the opportunity to look at international sides that haven’t been sighted for close to three years.
The rescheduled 2021 world cup is being contested at the end of this year and it could be the tightest contest since the tournament resurfaced in 2000.
The 2008 world cup was more or less an anomaly with New Zealand’s upset win in the final. The Kangaroos dominated the majority of the tournament.
And normal service resumed in 2013 and 2017 with the Kangaroos cruising to victory.
Since then there has been a push to try and improve rugby league in the Pacific, driven by the rise of Tonga following the defections of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita.
Pacific tests became a regular part of the calendar in the middle of the year until COVID intervened and put a stop to that.
Tonga has continued to rise in power even with instability at the administrative level. Its mid-season Pacific test squad boasts exceptional NRL experience, with only its spine impacting its ability to take that next step.
In New Zealand they have signaled a changing of the guard. Benji Marshall has retired, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has moved to rugby union, while Shaun Johnson has been dropped.
In their places are Joey Manu, Dylan Brown and Jahrome Hughes.
Perhaps the biggest changes have occurred at the Kangaroos and is one reason why this year’s world cup could threaten their dominance.
Gone are Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Johnathan Thurston and Greg Inglis.
In their 2019 outing against Tonga the Kangaroos were humbled and with no mid-year test in 2022 they will virtually be going in blind to their world cup camp, even with the Origin series effectively offering selectors a look at the likely contenders.
Daly Cherry-Evans is the incumbent halfback but Nathan Cleary has been the benchmark for two years. The incumbent captain was Boyd Cordner, but with his retirement comes questions surrounding who replaces him.
James Tedesco is the New South Wales captain, but Cherry-Evans is the Maroons captain. It will be an interesting decision depending on the halfback selection.
Cameron Munster virtually picks himself at five-eighth, but as you get deeper into the squad, there are plenty of eligibility questions.
Jarome Luai and Junior Paulo could both mount cases to be in the Australian squad, but both have Samoan heritage and Toa Samoa could well do with their services.
Brian To’o has pledged allegiance to Samoa, providing them with a massive boost.
Perhaps the most interesting selection query from the Kangaroos is Tyson Frizell. He’s unlikely to be in the Australian squad but is also eligible for both Wales and Tonga.
If you look at Fiji then they have the makings of a powerhouse side with size and skill across the park. Perhaps letting them down is a lack of a high quality spine, which again, also impacts Tonga and Samoa to an extent although the availability of Anthony Milford and Jarome Luai is mouthwatering.
The biggest boost for the Bati would be the availability of Apisai Koroisau. Australia could lob for Damien Cook, Harry Grant and Ben Hunt in their squad, which would leave the 16-time Fijian representative available to represent the Bati once again.
Or he could pledge for them following Origin. The addition of a crafty hooker alongside an NRL experienced half such as Brandon Wakeham could improve Fiji’s chances of progressing in the competition significantly.
Wakeham was unavailable for the mid-season test against Papua New Guinea due to being suspended for an eye gouge.
The lack of recognised halves showed in Fiji’s inability to take advantage of the field position they had against PNG.
The real surprise packets though could be the aforementioned Kumuls who stunned Fiji.
They play an exciting brand of rugby league but did so with a level of control not really seen in previous PNG sides.
They did beat Great Britain back in 2019, but that same year they were beaten by Fiji.
It’s hard to quantify the impact the PNG Hunters have had on the national side, but they supplied seven players to the 19-man squad.
It also doesn’t hurt that they have quite the NRL-experienced backline. David Mead may be retiring and unavailable for the World Cup, but they can still rely on Justin Olam, Alex Johnston and Xavier Coates when fit.
Lachlan Lam was superb as was Kyle Laybutt. McKenzie Yei announced himself on the international stage with a blockbusting debut from the bench.
The fact they have been drawn in the same group as the Cook Islands, Wales and Tonga means we could very well see the Kumuls advance to the knockout stage.
The Lam and Laybutt combination demonstrated exactly what was missing for the Bati. Experienced halves players, clearly comfortable at a reserve grade level with some NRL experience.
Aside from England, Australia and New Zealand, virtually every other side in the world cup is going to be a mix of professionals and semi-professionals.
A NSW Cup or Qld Cup level halves pairing could be the difference between knockout stages and the group stage.
This type of experience will likely be lacking in many of the European countries.
There will be a longer look at the northern hemisphere closer to the world cup, but the French will benefit from having two teams in Super League, even if the English would rather both Toulouse and Catalan disappear.
The fact they haven’t removed Toulouse from relegation for a season or two in order to help them stabilise indicates they don’t really care.
Nevertheless, first grade experienced halves will be a big bonus for Les Tricolores.
It’s unlikely anyone gets close to Australia and New Zealand once again. All their players are drawn from the NRL and have plenty of familiarity playing alongside each other.
But that next step down provides the real interest and could be used by those sides to further enhance their own local development by either raising the profile of the sport, or providing their local players with an opportunity to perform on a visible stage and possible land a professional contract.
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