SO with the quarter finals now decided, Australia and New Zealand take their places as the rightful contenders to lift the 2013 Rugby League World Cup as the tournament begins to enter the finals. If crowds are to be judged then this World Cup has already been a great success but there have also been some mightily plucky performances to boot as well.
Given the total dominance that the Antipodean giants Kangaroos and New Zealand have within rugby league and of course England as a worthy back-up, there was the initial fear the teams making up ‘the rest’ so to speak would cower and stumble into ignominy via cricket score line losses. By and large that hasn’t happened save for a tired Ireland getting hammered by the Aussies 50-0 in Thomond Park.
We have seen some tremendous upsets lead by the brave hearts of Scotland in beating a NRL laden Tonga in the first round. The USA and Italy have also conjured up some enormous performances particularly over the most disappointing team of the competition in Wales. Stars have been born; not least the twinkle toed Joseph Paulo, the captain of the USA as well as gnarled NRL warriors lead by the evergreen Clint Newton for the USA and Antony Minichello of Italy.
We have had some drama off the field as well with poor old Steve McNamara, England’s beleaguered coach, having to fend off questions and then storm out of a press conference around the boozing within his squad. England have had a troubled start to the competition not helped by notorious bad boy Gareth Hock being sent home before a ball had been kicked and Zak Hardakre also following likewise. Add in a sure to be fiery encounter between Souths’ Sammy Burgess and the Bulldog’s James Graham when they go head to head in the NRL next season (if the press is too be believed) due to conflicting viewpoints on England’s internal discipline. The Kangaroos have not had it all easy either with Josh Papalii having his wallet stolen and the normally placid Billy Slater having to defend himself whilst retrieving his jacket from a Manchester nightclub. And there was me thinking that the north of England was safer and friendlier than London?!
So with the quarter finals looming large this weekend, who should we be looking out for and will there be any upsets? The latter is unlikely but we can dare to dream. The surprise team of the tournament undoubtedly has been the USA. Granted that they have one American in their squad as rightly pointed out by the Welsh coach Iestyn Harris but to be in the finals is an extraordinary achievement. Three weeks ago barely any of the squad knew each other let alone played together. This Saturday they have earned the right to face the might of the Kangaroos in a World Cup quarter final and they have done it by playing some wonderful rugby. This tie almost has a FA Cup romanticism about it, especially when reading about Taylor Welch, a $10-an-hour dog walker from Dallas, who has the unenviable task of stopping one of the games superstars in Greg Inglis. I fear that Taylor may have bitten off more than he can chew but how wonderful would it be to see the USA take the game to the Kangaroos and see what happens.
The Kiwis have quite quietly gone about their business in this tournament. SBW is up and running with a hatrick against the Papua New Guineans and their gargantuan pack lead by Jared Warea-Hargreaves and Frank ‘the tank’ Pritchard will surely be too formidable for the Scots. They also have an abundance of class and pace out wide with Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson pulling the strings.
The hosts England did enough in the second half against Fiji to suggest that they can challenge the Southern Hemisphere. Sam Burgess was outstanding once again and Rangi Chase in the backs showed enough creativity to think that he could be lethal with opportunity and space to work in. One senses that England are building some momentum just at the right stage and on home turf and with a closely fought loss to the Kangaroos already under their belt, they cannot be ruled out.
Don’t’ forget the titanic tussle between the Fijians and Samoans in the other quarter final. This will be a brutal match with plenty of big hits as well as skill added to the mix. Watch out for the Sims brothers who will relish the physical challenge laid on by the likes of Mose Masoe.
Predictions for the semi-finals are as follows: New Zealand to play England and I am backing the Samoans to get through against Fiji to face the Kangaroos in the other semi-final. There might not be any upsets but you can be sure of some sore rib cages laid on with immense pride and a lasting legacy from the surprise packages of the tournament, the USA and Scotland.