SYDNEY (Reuters) – The 15th edition of the rugby league World Cup gets underway in Melbourne on Friday with Australia unbackable favourites to lift the trophy and organisers banking on tweaked eligibility rules to increase the competitiveness of the tournament.
The Kangaroos are a prohibitive 5-1 on with the bookmakers to claim their 11th title on Dec. 2 in the last of the 28 matches played by 14 teams in 13 cities across Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
The strength of New Zealand, who stunned the hosts to win the World Cup the last time it was held Down Under in 2008, usually adds the only shred of competitive respectability to the tournament.
England, who contributed to three World Cup triumphs for Great Britain in the early days of the tournament, provide Australia’s opponents in the opening match and are the only other nation with a realistic hope of upsetting the co-hosts.
The English were the only team to score any tries against the Australians four years ago when the Kangaroos won all of their matches and destroyed the Kiwis 34-2 in the final.
Mal Meninga’s squad, while not quite of the quality of the 2013 vintage, is again replete with the cream of the National Rugby League (NRL).
Unflappable hooker Cameron Smith captains the side and with his Queensland and Melbourne Storm team mates, halfback Cooper Cronk and fullback Billy Slater, makes up a “big three” looking to wrap up an NRL, State of Origin and World Cup treble.
“The World Cup is huge for our game, we don’t have fond memories of the last World Cup in Australia in 2008 so we want to turn that around,” Smith said last week.
“It’s a celebration of our game and I think everyone who gets involved with this tournament and comes out and sees all the matches is going to be for a treat.
“There is going to be some great football played and there are some wonderful players on show throughout this tournament so I can’t wait.”
Given the heavy concentration of top quality rugby league talent in Australia and New Zealand combined with the lack of elite competitions in almost all of the other nations, the international federation has loosened the eligibility rules.
With the aim of ensuring as much top quality talent as possible will be on show, players with dual eligibility but not picked by one country can turn out for the other.
The result is the likes of eight-cap Kangaroo Robbie Farah captaining a Lebanon team also featuring Parramatta Eels five eighth Mitchell Moses, future Kangaroo James Tedesco turning out for Italy and Jarryd Hayne joining the Fiji side.
The biggest beneficiaries have been Tonga, who managed to persuade standout NRL forward Jason Taumalolo to ditch the New Zealand side on the eve of the Kiwi squad announcement.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf has named a team rich with NRL talent for their opener against Scotland in Cairns on Sunday, Taumalolo starting with 2013 World Cup winner Andrew Fifita, Will Hopoate, Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou in the backline.
Taumalolo’s defection will certainly add spice to Tonga’s final pool game in Hamilton against a New Zealand side already weakened by the absence of five eighth Kieran Foran because of injury and Jesse Bromwich for disciplinary reasons.