The opening match of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup sees two of the fancied sides for the tournament in Australia and England colliding in what could be a thrilling beginning to the tournament which needs to be good throughout for the growth of the game.
Even this early in the tournament this match is likely to determine the winner of Group A and while both sides will aim to peak later in the event the chance to lay a marker down for what is to come should not be lost on either.
The defending champions go into the tournament looking to justify favouritism both in the betting and with the home crowds but that is a pressure they have had before and lived with. They will be determined to win the competition on home soil after failing to do so the last time the tournament was held down under.
This will be a different Australia side to the one which won the title back in 2013 but on paper at least it looks to have all the basics and key positions covered. Generally Australian sides look to start off solidly and build on their efforts week on week in the lead up to the final so it will be interesting to see how on it they are here.
I can’t remember the last time England sent a side carrying such expectation down under but that is the case for the current crop. Whether that expectation comes from the number of NRL players at their disposal, the super coach they have guiding them, or the perceived weakness in some of their opponents at this tournament I’m not sure but it is there.
I would imagine there aren’t many packs in the competition that can stand up to England’s and it will be interesting to see how hard they go at it here. For once England look to have a back line that can feed off the positions their forwards get them into and if it all clicks at the first time of asking they should be very dangerous.
Australia will be without some of their lynchpins from the past in this tournament. Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Darius Boyd are all missing now but Billy Slater is back and is in excellent form.
England have chosen Gareth Widdop at stand-off with Jonny Lomax fit to play at full back. John Bateman is a surprise inclusion in the centres while Alex Walmsley and James Roby will start from the bench.
This is likely to be the game of the first fortnight of the tournament so hopefully it is a cracker as there are a number of one-sided matches to come. I think this will be a close encounter. I don’t think either side will be at their best. Six matches in five weeks is a tough ask so I wouldn’t expect either side to look to peak here.
That may well play to the advantage of England but even if it doesn’t I think a 16pt handicap is a massive one to ride for Wayne Bennett’s men. England have the forward pack to dominate for long periods and Luke Gale’s kicking game along with the organisation of Gareth Widdop in the middle of the pack should see England box clever.
If I had to choose I would say Australia will win the game but their focus will be on fitness rather than running up a cricket score so I expect England to stay within 16pts.
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