Sam Tomkins (pictured below) is seen as just about the best runner in rugby league and his form will be key to Great Britain’s chances in the Rugby League World Cup for which they can be backed at 7/1. Australia are the 4/11 favourites to win the tournament in Britain and France that begins at the end of October and its combined odds of 1/4 that the winner come from Australasia.
The tournament was first staged in 1954 and there have been 12 renewals since then. The competition has never had a fixed date in the calendar as on some occasions there has been a three gap between tournaments and at other times eight years have passed between successive competitions. For example there was a World Cup in 2000 but not another for eight years. The event is now on a four year cycle and France are the next hosts in 2017.
Australia, France and New Zealand are the only teams to have not missed a tournament. Only Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain have been world champions. Australia are by far the most successful side with nine wins. Great Britain were ever present before a split into England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in 1995.
The format of the tournament has evolved significantly since 1954. At first the event involved just four teams, from Australia, Britain, France and New Zealand. Between 1975 and 1992 matches were played on a home and away basis. In its next format teams had to qualify from regional groups. Sixteen teams took part with the last eight playing elimination matches.
For the first time in its history the RLWC will involve fourteen teams playing in the tournament over five weeks at 19 rugby league grounds across Britain and Ireland and two in France . The teams are split into two groups of four sides and two of three. Three nations will qualify from the bigger groups and two from the combined two groups of three sides. Eight teams progress to the knockout stages the culmination of which is the World Cup Final at Old Trafford.
The ground is the home stadium for the English soccer side, Manchester United who play in the Premier league. The capacity of the ground is about 75,000. This provides a viable alternative to Wembley Stadium in London that accommodates 15,000 more supporters. However, it is appropriate that the final is played in the north of England, a hotbed of the sport and where it was first invented.
Great Britain won the first tournament in 1954 and added two more world titles in 1960 and 1972. Since then the balance of power has shifted to the Southern Hemisphere. The last seven tournaments have been won by Australia or New Zealand, the latter breaking the run of success of their great rivals in 2008 that stretched to six tournaments and 33 years.
New Zealand beat Australia 34-20 at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane in 2008. It is the first time Australia have not won the World Cup when they have hosted the event. Rugby league is hugely poplular in that part of the world and beating Australia in the World Cup final away from home is seen as one of the greatest achievement in the history of sport in New Zealand.
Great Britain are in the same group as Australia, alongside Fiji and Ireland. Unfortunately many of the matches will be uncompeittive and Ireland in particular will be looking to limit the damage from mismatches against England and Australia. Ireland have a squad of players drawn from several nations, including Lithuania, represented by Warrington Wolves centre James Mendiaka.
New Zealand and France are favourites to qualify from their group which means Samoa and Papua New Guinea will be competing for the third place in the elimination rounds. Six of the minor rugby league nations will be striving to earn the qualifying spots from the other two groups, with Tonga and Scotland the most likely to progress.
The National Rugby League in Australasia is the strongest in the world. Despite the wealth of clubs in England due to a massive increase in television money the highest wages are still paid in Australia. Tomkins reputedly was the highest paid player in Super League at £300,000 but his salary will be more than double when he moves to New Zealand Warriors in the NRL.
Great Britain have been preparing for the World Cup at high altitude in South Africa. The national coach, Steve McNamara, has almost a full squad of fit players ahead of a warm–up game against Italy in Salford. Ben Westwood is suspended and Sean O’Loughlin is injured but in most areas there is competition for places as players from the elite training squad try to win the trophy for their country for the first time in over 40 years.
Alongside Tomkins Sam Burgess will have a key role in the Great Britain side during the World Cup. He plays for the South Sydney Rabbitohs of the NRL. Burgess has played for the NRL All Stars, named captain of the Rabbitohs and made history by playing in the same side as his three brothers for the Sydney club. He was even named the best Pommie to move to Australia in 20 years so he must be doing something right to win over the Aussie sporting public.
Australia’s key player could be Billy Slater (pictured below) who plays for Melbourne Storm in the NRL. His attributes include speed of the mark, elusive running and kicking ability. Slater was named Australia’s greatest athlete in 2009 and 2010. He will be looking for redemption this year as his mistake at a key stage of the match cost his side four points in the final against New Zealand in 2009.
Cameron Smith is seen as the world’s best hooker and is therefore another key member of the Australia side. He was judged the world’s best player in 2007 and was second to Kevin Sinfield of Great Britain for the same honour in 2012. Smith is now at his peak and his influence will determine the progress for Australia in this year’s World Cup, especially as Great Britain have home advantage.