Rugby League World Cup Group D: Flying Fijians and Italian imports in battle for finals

Riley Pettigrew Roar Guru

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    Group D is shaping to be a battle between Fiji and Italy to secure a spot in the finals while the United States will hope to cause a major upset.

    After finishing in the semi-finals in 2013, Fiji have secured the talents of Jarryd Hayne who will lead a star backline featuring leading NRL tryscorer Suliasi Vunivalu while Michael Potter has a big forward pack ready to rip in.

    Italy on the other hand failed to make the finals in their debut World Cup but have also enlisted NRL talent in James Tedesco and Paul Vaughan. A mixture of youth and experience will feature for the Azzurri as they look to extend their undefeated season in 2017.

    Despite being without NRL talent, the United States loom as a dark horse with a strong contingent of USARL players looking to prove to the rugby league world that America is well and truly on the map.

    Fiji

    Fact File
    RLIF Ranking: 8
    Captain: Kevin Naiqama
    Coach: Michael Potter
    World Cup Appearances (since 1995): 4 (1996, 2000, 2008, 2013)
    Best World Cup Finish: Semi-finals (2008, 2013)

    After finishing in the semi-finals at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, Fiji will be hoping to go one better in 2017.

    The Bati have named a strong contingent particularly in the outside backs with Suliasi Vunivalu, Marcelo Montoya and Jarryd Hayne to set the rugby league world alight.

    Their biggest challenge though will come in the halves as the Bati will be without any experienced playmakers and have been forced to thrust out of position players into the 6 and 7 jumpers with Jarryd Hayne a possibility to play at five-eighth.

    Despite that however, Michael Potter will be strong in other areas with a gun forward pack led by Kane Evans and Korbin Sims featuring NSW Cup star Eloni Vunakece. Their side is further bolstered by Apisai Koroisau who was among the best hookers in the NRL this season.

    Fiji will go into the tournament as favourites to top Group D however, they will face stern opposition with Italy posting a talented squad that could challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

    The star… Suliasi Vunivalu (Melbourne Storm): The NRL’s leading tryscorer two years running, Suliasi Vunivalu has made a name for himself since making his debut with the Melbourne Storm in 2016.

    The Suva product has an impressive strike rate with 46 tries from 47 outings, winning a premiership ring in 2017 with the Storm and fast becoming a staple of Craig Bellamy’s 17.

    After making his Bati debut earlier in the year, Vunivalu will be the star of the Fijian backline and will be looking to continue his impressive try scoring record.

    You don’t know me… Pio Seci (Nabua Broncos): Nabua Broncos outside back Pio Seci returns for the Bati having been selected as a local player from the Fijian competition after a stellar performance in the Battle of the Bati fixture held in Suva.

    Seci is unlikely to beat out the likes of Suliasi Vunivalu and Akuila Uate for a spot in the first team however, he will be looking to get on the field having represented his nation at the highest level in the past.

    The cousin of Tui Kamikamica, Seci has spent time in Australia with the Easts Tigers and will be eager to once again play alongside some of Fiji’s greatest exports in representing his country at the World Cup.

    The squad: Kane Evans, Salesi Fainga’a, Jarryd Hayne, Tui Kamikamica, Viliame Kikau, Apisai Koroisau, Joe Lovadua, Henry Raiwalui, Taane Milne, Sitiveni Moceidreke, Marcelo Montoya, Kevin Naiqama, Ben Nakubuwai, Mikaele Ravalawa, Junior Roqica, Jacob Saifiti, Ashton Sims, Korbin Sims, Pio Seci, James Storer, Akuila Uate, Eloni Vunakece, Suliasi Vunivalu, Brayden Wiliame

    Best XVII: 1. Jarryd Hayne, 2. Suliasi Vunivalu, 3. Kevin Naiqama, 4. Akuila Uate, 5. Marcelo Montoya, 6. Sitiveni Moceidreke, 7. Henry Raiwalui, 8. Kane Evans, 9. Apisai Koroisau, 10. Korbin Sims, 11. Viliame Kikau, 12. Tui Kamikamica, 13. Eloni Vunakece
    Interchange: 14. James Storer, 15. Jacob Saifiti, 16. Ashton Sims, 17. Ben Nakubuwai

    Prediction: Quarter-finals
    Fiji are likely to finish on top of Group D securing wins over Italy and United States which could see them through to a tight quarter-final match-up against Samoa.

    Italy

    Fact File
    RLIF Ranking: 14
    Captain: Mark Minichiello
    Coach: Cameron Ciraldo
    World Cup Appearances (since 1995): 1 (2013)
    Best World Cup Finish: Group stage (2013)

    Buoyed by the addition of NRL stars James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan, Nathan Brown and Daniel Alvaro, Italy have their sights set on making their first ever finals appearance at a World Cup.

    The Azzurri have a relatively easier draw in comparison to other nations of a similar status however with Fiji and the United States ahead qualification for the knockouts won’t be too straightforward.

    Cameron Ciraldo has named eleven players from the 2013 Rugby League World Cup squad headlined by Tedesco, Vaughan and skipper Mark Minichiello.

    The bulk of the squad were involved in last year’s Rugby League World Cup qualifiers with 16 players.

    Among them is Mirco Bergamasco, a former Italian rugby union international. Bergamasco was the star of Italy’s outing against Malta kicking plenty of goals in their 24-all draw.

    In addition the Azzurri will field a host of young fringe NRL players. The likes of Panthers fullback Mason Cerruto, Knights five-eighth Jack Johns, Bulldogs hooker Joey Tramontana and Sharks back rower Jayden Walker will all use the World Cup as a springboard to edge closer to their NRL debuts.

    Not only will they have plenty of rookies in their squad, Italy also have veterans Terry Campese and Mark Minichiello, with Campese showing no signs of ageing after winning the Canberra Raiders Cup with Queanbeyan Blues earlier in the year. NRL experience from Tedesco, Vaughan, Brown and Alvaro will also help guide Italy close to a finals berth.

    The star… James Tedesco (Wests Tigers): RLPA Players’ Champion James Tedesco is one of the best fullbacks in the world, returning for his second World Cup with Italy after missing out on selection for the Kangaroos.

    Tedesco stood out in a lacklustre Wests Tigers side in 2017, a season where he settled into the New South Wales Blues State of Origin team as their first choice fullback and has cemented himself as one of the best young talents in the NRL.

    The Camden junior will be a much-needed addition to the backline with big game experience in State of Origin and NRL, forming a strong spine alongside Terry Campese, Ryan Ghietti and Joey Tramontana.

    You don’t know me… Gioele Celerino (Tully Tigers): 23-year-old second-rower Gioele Celerino has had a brilliant season with the Tully Tigers since joining the club from Newcastle Thunder in the UK.

    Born in Piedmont, Celerino previously played for Italy’s top club Saluzzo North West Roosters and is set to make his World Cup debut after failing to get a game in 2013.

    Celerino was a key player in Italy’s qualification run making appearances in all three of the Azzurri’s matches which saw them secure their spot as the final team to qualify for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

    Celerino sits behind a quality pack which features the likes of Mark Minichiello, Paul Vaughan and Nathan Brown but should he impress coach Ciraldo, he may be a bolter for a spot on the bench.

    The squad: Daniel Alvaro, Mirco Bergamasco, Nathan Brown, Terry Campese, Christophe Calegari, Justin Castellaro, Gioele Celerino, Chris Centrone, Mason Cerruto, Ryan Ghietti, Gavin Hiscox, Jack Johns, Richard Lepori, Josh Mantellato, Nathan Milone, Mark Minichiello, Joel Riethmuller, Brenden Santi, James Tedesco, Joey Tramontana, Paul Vaughan, Shannon Wakeman, Colin Wilkie, Jayden Walker

    Best XVII: 1. James Tedesco, 2. Mason Cerruto, 3. Chris Centrone, 4. Mirco Bergamasco, 5. Richard Lepori, 6. Terry Campese, 7. Ryan Ghietti, 8. Shannon Wakeman, 9. Joey Tramontana, 10. Paul Vaughan, 11. Mark Minichiello, 12. Joel Riethmuller, 13. Nathan Brown
    Interchange: 14. Jack Johns, 15. Daniel Alvaro, 16. Brenden Santi, 17. Jayden Walker

    Prediction: Second
    Italy will be unlucky to go down to Fiji but their experience should see them move past the Americans into second place.

    United States

    Fact File
    RLIF Ranking: 10
    Captain: Mark Offerdahl
    Coach: Brian McDermott
    World Cup Appearances (since 1995): 1 (2013)
    Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-finals (2013)

    USA Hawks coach Brian McDermott has named a strong contingent of local American players with only three NRL players named.

    Hull-bound winger Bureta Faraimo, Titans enforcer Eddy Pettybourne and Junior Vaivai will all appear for Team USA alongside talented Toronto Wolfpack pair Ryan Burroughs and Joe Eichner.

    It will be a big test for the Americans who have very little NRL or Super League experience outside of the three aforementioned players. It could be a huge disadvantage to them although with Brian McDermott at the helm, they won’t be too far off the mark in terms of playing structure when compared with other nations.

    The biggest test for the Hawks will come against the Fijians in the first week with a win required to be in with a shot at the finals.

    The star… Bureta Faraimo (New Zealand Warriors): Bureta Faraimo has long been a fringe first-grade player but has been unfortunate to never make himself a regular NRL player.

    The Wellington-born winger made his NRL debut for the Parramatta Eels in 2014 after signing with the club from the Mackay Cutters where he became a try scoring machine and earnt selection for the United States at the 2013 rugby league World Cup.

    Faraimo featured 15 times over three years in the NRL squad but spent most of his time in the New South Wales Cup where he was named at wing in the Team of the Year in 2014 and also represented New South Wales Residents in both 2016 and 2017.

    Faraimo left the Eels midway through 2017, looking for a new start at the New Zealand Warriors where he became a core part of their NSW Cup team being named once again in the Team of the Year at wing.

    He has since signed a two-year contract with Hull FC starting in 2018 and will be hoping to use his experience from playing in the NRL and lower grades to help boost the Americans.

    You don’t know me… Joe Eichner (Toronto Wolfpack): Florida native Joe Eichner has been welcomed into the professional rugby league fold with open arms since joining the Toronto Wolfpack for their maiden season in League 1.

    Eichner has previously played for the Jacksonville Axemen with the hard-working backrower getting his first call-up for the United States in 2016, being rewarded for his efforts.

    The Wolfpack star could end up pushing into the starting side where Wolfpack teammate Ryan Burroughs is all but certain to be named.

    The squad: Taylor Alley, Ryan Burroughs, CJ Cortalano, Joe Eichner, Bureta Faraimo, Gabriel Farley, Kristian Freed, Daniel Howard, Stephen Howard, Martwain Johnston, Andrew Kneisly, Corey Makelim, Fotukava Malu, David Marando, Nick Newlin, Mark Offerdahl, Eddy Pettybourne, Josh Rice, Matt Shipway, Samuel Tochterman-Talbott, David Ulch, Junior Vaivai, Matt Walsh

    Best XVII: 1. Gabriel Farley, 2. Bureta Faraimo, 3. Ryan Burroughs, 4. Corey Makelim, 5. Taylor Alley, 6. Junior Vaivai, 7. David Marando, 8. Mark Offerdahl, 9. Kristian Freed, 10. Daniel Howard, 11. Eddy Pettybourne, 12. Matt Shipway, 13. Stephen Howard
    Interchange: 14. David Ulch, 15. Nick Newlin, 16. Andrew Kneisly, 17. Joe Eichner

    Prediction: Third
    The Americans lack of big game experience will see them struggle to compete with Fiji and Italy’s star power.

    The draw for Group D is as follows
    Fiji versus United States at Townsville, Townsville (28 October)
    Italy versus Ireland (Group C) at Barlow Park, Cairns (29 October)
    Italy versus United States at Townsville Stadium, Townsville (5 November)
    Fiji versus Wales (Group C) at Townsville Stadium, Townsville (5 November)
    Fiji versus Italy at Canberra Stadium, Canberra (10 November)
    United States versus Papua New Guinea (Group C) at National Football Stadium, Port Moresby (12 November)

    Game to watch: Fiji versus Italy (10 November)

    Group D will end in a match between Fiji and Italy, the two nations most likely to qualify for a spot in the quarter-finals.

    It will be a clash between some of the game’s biggest stars in the nation’s capital with Fiji’s star players Jarryd Hayne and Suliasi Vunivalu coming up against Italian imports James Tedesco and Paul Vaughan.

    There will be plenty of attacking flair from both sides as usual in what will be an exciting match that should hold immense weight.