England have been far from impressive in reaching the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup and are third favourites to win the trophy for the first time. In order to be presented with the biggest prize in the sport England must beat New Zealand in Saturday’s semi final and almost certainly Australia in the final at Old Trafford on November 30th.
However, after never looking like losing their three group matches and quarter final against France now comes the difficult part of the tournament for England. If they want to reach the World Cup Final they have to find a way of stopping Sonny Bill Williams at Wembley this weekend.
Williams is the best player in the world. He is a freakish talent that only comes along once in every generation. He has pace, athleticism, is a wonderful defender and has mastered the art of the offload. New Zealand have several other outstanding attacking players but Williams will be their main threat in the semi-final and England must somehow limit his influence on the outcome of the match.
The England coach, Steve McNamara, at least has a player available for selection who could man mark Williams and contain him. Sam Burgess has the physical presence to rattle Williams and keep him effectively out of the game. If Williams is put off his game and confronts Burgess he could lose focus and not contribute as part of a team structure and plan.
However, if England fail to limit the role of Williams he could settle the match out wide with clean breaks and those magical passes to teammates who are in support. If he’s kept quiet as much as possible England have a chance but if not the home of Manchester United Football Club known as the Theatre of Dreams will see a repeat of the 2008 final when Australia played New Zealand.
The New Zealand forwards are strong and disciplined and have a quality hooker in Isaac Luke but England have possibly the best pack in the competition. They won’t play negatively but will need to run strong and straight at Wembley. When they did that in the second half against Fiji England looked a different team and ultimately won the match with something in hand.
When Rob Burrow came on from the bench he prompted England’s best form in the competition to date. Burrow is a natural scrum-half and he troubled the Fiji forwards with his pace. He could do the same to the Kiwi pack if selected to start the match. England will have to play at their best for 80 minutes against New Zealand, the holders who all play in the NRL.
It’s important that England keep their shape and play as a team and not individuals. Their opponents know how to play the full 80 minutes and are used to the high intensity games that are a feature of rugby league in Australasia. The New Zealand side have not been stretched yet and will be confident of qualifying to play Australia again in the World Cup Final.
England qualified for the match against New Zealand by beating France 34-6 in the round of the last eight. However, the coach was far from happy after another inconsistent performance. It was a poor night for Sam Tomkins, considered England’s best player ahead of the tournament. He was sin-binned seven minutes from time. The former Wigan player, who will be playing for New Zealand Warriors in the NRL next season, has still not scored in the tournament but set up two tries against France.
England’s problem of not playing at the best for a whole game raises doubts over their ability to beat New Zealand in the semi-finals. If they are as sloppy in that match they will not reach the final. The game was won in the first half with wingers Ryan Hall and Josh Charnley scoring two tries each. But the second half was disjointed though with the game won the level of intensity went down as there was little incentive for England not relax somewhat.
It is fair to say that England did play well for most of the first half and only weakened when the game was won. However, the side will have to play consistently well throughout the whole match to have any chance of beating New Zealand. France did create several chances and stretched the England defence at times and a better side would have finished the match with a bigger tally of points. New Zealand are one such side.
The other semi-final is between Australia and Fiji which means three teams from the same group have qualified for the last four. Australia beat Fiji 34-2 in the preliminary round and there is no reason to suggest they will not build up a similar winning margin in the knockout phase. Fiji only beat Ireland in the group phase and qualified for the quarter finals almost be default.
In four matches to date Australia have scored 174 points and conceded 22. They have been less stretched than New Zealand or England and will be confident of becoming world champions for the tenth time. The Rugby League World Cup has attracted some sell out crowds but up until now has been mainly predictable. Right at the start of the tournament most pundits were predicting a final between Australia and England or New Zealand.
Australia are by far the best team in the tournament. Their squad is made up of players from the NRL and have experience of the highest intensity matches in the annual State of Origin series. Three matches are played each year between the best players born in the states of New South Wales and Queensland. The fixtures bring together teammates from the leading clubs in the NRL, each with the massive incentive of beating their interstate rivals.
Australia are as short as 2/5 to win this World Cup which means England or New Zealand will have to put in two huge shifts to win the trophy at the end of the month