Can host nation England spring a surprise against Australia in the World Cup opener?
Australia v England
Millenium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday 2.30pm (UK time)
Sunday 12.30am (AEDT); Saturday 11.30pm (AEST)
The 'Old Dart' will be out to puncture the Aussies' title hopes in this potentially explosive World Cup opener, fuelled by the knowledge victory could afford them a 'soft ride' through to the Final on November 30.
Meanwhile Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens will be hoping his charges can blow away the cobwebs – 14 of their extended squad of 19 have not pulled on a jersey with purpose for more than a month – and bank a victory that would seemingly assure them safe passage through to the decider.
The winner of this clash will likely go on to top Group A, plotting a course for a semi-final showdown with the second-placed team from Group B – most likely Samoa. Meanwhile, the loser of this match would most likely need to get past New Zealand in the second semi-final to advance to the Final.
On paper England pose a huge and skilful threat – although they had their confidence rocked when felled by lowly Italy in a World Cup trial last week.
In the forwards, they boast brute strength and aggression through the likes of Burgess brothers Sam, George and Tom and firebrand Lee Mossop, although James Graham has been left out of the side – possibly for disciplinary reasons – in a significant blow for the hosts. In the backs they exhibit guile through captain Kevin Sinfield, creativity through NRL star Gareth Widdop and pace and x-factor through excitement machine Sam Tomkins.
However, the key to their competitiveness rests with how they gel as a cohesive unit.
Meanwhile Tim Sheens has signalled his intention to run the white jerseys ragged by naming Robbie Farah on the Australian bench; the Wests Tigers hooker's darts out of dummy-half will be key to the Kangaroos staying on the front foot when the England defence begins to tire.
Watch Out Australia: Sam Tomkins has the flair and pace to light up the field and his injections will be paramount to England's cause. And boy can he sniff out a try! The flashy No.1 finished third on the UK Super League's try-scoring list last season, with 23 from 21 games; prior to that, in 2012 – the year after he last suited up against Australia – he topped the list with 28 tries and won the Man of Steel award. Tomkins has 101 career Super League tries and is credited with 16 tries from 15 games in the England jersey.
Watch Out England: Where do we start? The Kangaroos may not be the reigning World Champions but there's no denying most rugby league followers are expecting them to reclaim the mantle New Zealand wrestled from them in 2008. Certainly they have the cattle: a monster forward pack, bolstered this tour by imposing debutant Andrew Fifita, and a scintillating backline featuring attacking superstars Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Billy Slater.
In particular, watch for the work Thurston and Paul Gallen deliver as a pairing; the last time the Kangaroos met England the duo seemed joined at the hip and orchestrated two crucial tries via excellent support play.
Plays To Watch: Australia executing precise, sweeping second-man plays inside the England 20-metre zone; Greg Inglis getting clean ball with room to move on the left edge; Robbie Farah catching the defence on the hop; England spreading the ball wide to their speedy flank men; Gareth Widdop scheming with the ball in hand and looking to beat or suck in Brent Tate on the left edge; George Burgess, utilising his great leg speed and strength, pounding it up like a battering ram inside the Kangaroos' 10-metre zone – then brother Sam tag-teaming his younger sibling, taking the next ball one off the ruck and looking to take advantage of the disorganised defensive line.
Key Match-Up: The packs. Forget any one-on-one battle – the prospect Andrew Fifita and James Tamou ripping in against the Burgess brothers is alone mouth-watering. Fifita made more metres in the NRL in 2013 than any other player, crossed the try line on more occasions than any prop (nine), busted more tackles than any prop (103) and was ranked third for line-breaks and offloads in his position. Meanwhile Sam Burgess ranked second behind Greg Inglis for line busts at South Sydney (with 14), scored eight tries and averaged 139 metres a match, while George averaged 134 metres and scored seven tries. Throw in George's twin Tom and the battle up front is a powder keg waiting to ignite.
Where It Will Be Won: Maintaining the rage – and the momentum. When these teams last met in 2011 England pressed the Kangaroos for nearly an hour before Australia hit the afterburners, accelerating from an 8-all scoreline to 30-8 at fulltime. Anyone who viewed that game got the sense England hit the brick wall, while Australia simply managed to click into another gear. Clearly England need to jump out of the blocks if they are to have any chance. Australia? Attitude will be a key asset – but lack of it could prove a fatal liability.
The History: England have not beaten Australia since surprising them 20-16 at Wembley Stadium in the1995 World Cup. Most recently Great Britain secured a 23-12 win in the 2006 Tri Nations. �
Last Time They Met: Darren Lockyer brought down the curtain on his stellar career in fine style, scoring Australia's last try as the Kangaroos defeated England 30-8 in the final of the 2011 Four Nations championship at Elland Road, Leeds.
Sam Thaiday scored the Aussies' first try in the fourth minute, cleaning up the scraps of a cross-field bomb directed for Jharal Yow Yeh's right wing, before England equalised via a controversial penalty try to Ryan Hall in the 36th minute. Gareth Ellis was penalised in the dying seconds of the first half, handing Australia an 8-6 lead at halftime.
England drew level courtesy of a Kevin Sinfield penalty goal in the 52nd minute and the white jerseys appeared to be storming back into the contest.
However, the class of the Kangaroos shone through in the final 23 minutes, with the Aussies pulling away from their opponents through tries to Yow Yeh (57th minute), Thurston (62nd minute), Inglis (69th minute) and finally Lockyer (79th minute) – the Aussie captain scoring after grubber-kicking, hitting the posts and regathering. Incredibly, he then missed the simple conversion attempt!
Referee: Henry Perenara (New Zealand).
Televised: 7Mate – Live Sunday 12.30am (NSW), Saturday 11.30pm (Qld).
The Way We See It: England could steal this match if they play to their potential, but the Kangaroos are seasoned campaigners who will have some explaining to do to their coach – and their fans – if they fail to 'turn up'. Which is unlikely. Australia by eight points in a highly entertaining and absorbing contest.
*Statistics: NRL Stats