Beware the defending champs: rugby league World Cup preview

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    Next year will see another edition of rugby league’s World Cup and, as the Kangaroos will fully appreciate after the boil-over of 2008, it is far from a fait accompli.

    Since that famous Kiwis victory in the final of the last World Cup, the New Zealanders pinched the 2010 Four Nations trophy with a wonderful last-ditch try and pushed the Kangaroos all the way in the one-off Test this year in Townsville.

    New Zealand rugby league has benefitted enormously over the past decade or so from having a team in the world’s premier rugby league competition, as the Kiwis’ fitness, smarts and big game experience have improved dramatically.

    The Kangaroos should expect another stern challenge from our trans-Tasman cousins. As has been the case for much of the last century, Australia is the number one team in international rugby league, but the Kiwis are only a touch away and can match it with the Aussies on their day.

    The English have gone through something of a revival, with a decent showing in last year’s Four Nations and victory in their tri series this year (albeit against weak opposition).

    They have developed a solid squad, particularly with their forward pack, which boasts the likes of Gareth Ellis, James Graham, Sam Burgess and Chris Heighington – these names will get the attention of anyone.

    Add to these forward backs such as Ryan Hall and Sam Tomkins and you start to see the components of a handy football side. England simply lack the exposure to the fast-paced NRL game the Kangaroos and Kiwis benefit from and, against the Kangaroos in particular, this has proven costly.

    England can have realistic hopes of knocking off the Kiwis but the Aussies may still be a bridge too far. But as increasing numbers of English players get a taste of NRL, the English national team will see their prospects improve.

    Among the rest, the most competitive will likely be the French, Papua New Guinea and Samoa – but few will be expecting any of these to be holding up any silverware at the tournament’s conclusion.

    Ultimately, it will be a two-horse race between Australia and New Zealand with England hoping to pull off an ambush or two.

    A top Kangaroo line-up may look like this;

    1. Billy Slater
    2. Darius Boyd
    3. Greg Inglis
    4. Josh Morris
    5. Brent Tate
    6. Johnathan Thurston
    7. Cooper Cronk
    8. Matt Scott
    9. Cameron Smith (c)
    10. James Tamou
    11. Ryan Hoffman
    12. Paul Gallen
    13. Greg Bird

    14. Ben Barba
    15. David Shillington
    16. Tony Williams
    17. David Taylor