2013 Rugby League World Cup preview: Can Kiwis defend their title?

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New Zealand provided one of the greatest upsets in recent sporting history when they defeated Australia in the 2008 World Cup final at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

Led by coach Stephen Kearney and rugby league mastermind Wayne Bennett, the Kiwis ambushed the Kangaroos 34-20 to take the coveted trophy back to New Zealand as World Cup champions for the very first time.

New Zealand Kiwis
RLIF World Ranking: 2
Best Result: Champions (2008)
2008 Finish: Champions
2013 RLWC Odds: $4.25

New Zealand has appeared in every single World Cup since the very first edition in 1954. It took 13 attempts for the Kiwis to finally be crowned champions, having previously failen at the final hurdle in 1988 and 2000.

Currently ranked No. 2 in the world, the Kiwis backed up their 2008 RLWC win with a Four Nations title in 2010, again defeating Australia in the final in Brisbane.

New Zealand will be without the services of Wayne Bennett at the 2013 RLWC, though the playing squad is significantly stronger than the team that took the field five years ago.

Team Line-up (likely)

1. Josh Hoffman
2. Manu Vatuvei
3. Krisnan Inu
4. Dean Whare
5. Jason Nightingale
6. Kieren Foran
7. Shaun Johnson
8. Sam Kasiano
9. Isaac Luke
10. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
11. Simon Mannering (c)
12. Sonny Bill Williams
13. Frank Pritchard

14. Elijah Taylor
15. Ben Matulino
16. Frank-Paul Nu’uausala
17. Alex Glenn

Squad Members: Kevin Locke, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Bryson Goodwin, Thomas Leuluai, Jesse Bromwich, Sam Moa, Greg Eastwood

The squad picked for the 2013 RLWC is the strongest Kiwi line-up in recent memory.

It contains strike power right across the field – an intimidating forward pack and skillful backs complemented by an impressive spine that performed well together in this year’s ANZAC Test against Australia.

In New Zealand’s only international this year, the scores were locked 6-all at the break before the Kangaroos ran away with it in the second half, however New Zealand went into that match with a host of stars out injured.

Stephen Kearney has selected a mix of youth and experience containing a lot of big match exposure, including six players who took part in the 2013 NRL grand final.

Key Player
This choice may cop a bit of flak due to recent headlines, however there is no doubt that the most influential player for New Zealand during the 2013 World Cup will be Sonny Bill Williams.

His return to rugby league this year was everything he would have hoped for, as he regularly starred for the Sydney Roosters side on their way to winning the premiership. This was no more evident than the final 20 minutes of the season, in which Williams put his stamp on the grand final.

He has a fair share of fans, and just as many critics, but no one can dispute that Sonny Bill is an extremely talented footballer – a fact that was evident from his very first season back in 2004. It is not just a coincidence that SBW has tasted success everywhere he has been over the past few years.

If Sonny performs at his best throughout the tournament, the Kiwis will go a long way towards defending their title. Another World Cup victory here will certainly put Williams in a category that very few before him have reached.

Group B Fixtures and Opponents
Vs Samoa @ Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington. Kick-off – Mon 28th Oct 6am AEDT
Vs France @ Parc Des Sports, Avignon. Kick-off – Sat 2nd Nov 7am AEDT
Vs Papua New Guinea @ Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds. Kick-off – Sat 9th Nov 7am AEDT

Key Match
New Zealand is the clear favourite to top Group B of the tournament and is expected to win all three matches against Samoa, France and Papua New Guinea.

The toughest encounter may come up against the French in front of a packed stadium in Avignon. France has troubled the Kiwis over the last decade, with New Zealand just edging the Chanticleers on numerous occasions.

The two nations provided memorable Test matches in 2004 (24-20), 2005 (38-22) and 2007 (22-14), however the last clash between the two resulted in the World Champions thumping the tri-colours 62-12.

All three of the Kiwis’ Group B opponents are expected to field vastly improved sides from 2008.

RLWC 2013 Prospects
Going into a World Cup for the first time as defending champions, there is an expectation that New Zealand will make the trip to Old Trafford on November 30.

The Kiwis are brimming with talent which has produced a squad that is far stronger than the side that won in 2008.

New Zealand perform significantly better in tournaments than they do in one-off Test matches, and the losing streak against the Kangaroos in the ANZAC Tests will have little influence in predicting their fortunes in this World Cup campaign.

The Kiwis will have to address their poor record in the Northern Hemisphere though, in particular the fact that they have not beaten England in the UK since the start of this millennium. They will have to break that hoodoo if they are to go all the way.

With this well balanced line-up, Stephen Kearney will be quietly confident that his men can go back-to-back and return to New Zealand still as World Cup champions.

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