The top ten most influential players at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup

Matt Cleary Columnist

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    After being overlooked for Australia, James Tedesco will be in action for Italy at the Rugby League World Cup. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Rob Cox)

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    The Rugby League World Cup is upon us and in great news for fans there’s star quality in every squad.

    Looking at those squads I’ve come up with the ultimate list of players who are likely to have the most impact for their respective teams and will be worth the ticket price just for their exploits.

    10 – James Tedesco (Italy)

    Named the NRL’s best player by his peers, it seems a lack of exposure at finals time has seen James Tedesco unable to force his way into Australia’s best 24.

    Mal Meninga, you would suggest, knows more about rugby league than most, and he can certainly make a strong case for Billy Slater, Darius Boyd, Josh Dugan and Tom Trbojevic, for they are all super players.

    But Tedesco’s omission is the biggest clanger since Clang beat The Oscars in the 1995 Silver Slipper.

    Yet Australia’s loss is the Federazione Italiana’s – and the greater World Cup’s – gain.

    Because it will be interesting and really quite cool to see Tedesco zipping about in Azzurri blue. He’s a ripper, Jimmy T.

    9 – Jason Taumalolo (Tonga)

    The game’s greatest metre-eating monster man, Jason Taumalolo regularly clocks over 200 metres worth of hit-ups and hard-charges, throwing his considerable bulk at the game’s greatest D-lines, and bending them like a Brahman bull tearing into a rabbit-proof fence.

    And now he’s turning out for the Kingdom of Tonga, the land which considers people the size of Taumalolo as average.

    And with Andrew Fifita also turning out for Mate Ma’a Tonga their odds of semi-final action are being reeled in like so many marlins.

    8 – Jarryd Hayne (Fiji)

    Fiji boasts some serious strike power around the park.

    Suliasi Vunivalu is a leaping try-scorer on the wing. Api Koroisau runs dangerous lines around the ruck. And the game’s premier “bash brothers” – Korbin, and Ashton Sims – will wreak their particular form of jolting man-action upon their fellow belters in the middle of the park.

    But the X-man of Fiji is, of course, Jarryd “Hayne Plane and/or Train” Hayne.

    When he’s “on” – and only Jarryd can tell you when that’s going to be – Hayne is the most devastating runner of the rugby league ball in the game.

    More X-factor than the show X-Factor.

    Jarryd Hayne Gold Coast Titans NRL Rugby League 2017

    (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

    7 – Josh Papalii (Samoa)

    If they ever re-make the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger they could do worse than cast Josh Papalii as Oddjob, the hat-flinging henchman.

    After missing out on Kangaroos selection Josh Papalii should be a big influence for the Samoan side.

    Papalii is arguably the best second rower in the world and he will be surrounded by a fantastic pack.

    He’s going to hit brutally and run the ball with utter ferocity. You can guarantee it.

    6 – Gareth Widdop (England)

    As they pore over the embers of another initially promising yet ultimately disappointing, even wretched season, St George Illawarra Dragons will find one shining light: star five-eighth Gareth Widdop.

    Honed hard and up-skilled in Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne machine, Widdop has been the Dragons’ best and most consistent player the last four seasons.

    Now 28, he brings to this World Cup a fine mesh of experience, fitness, talent and toughness.

    While slightly understated in his play, Widdop has a super-fine pass and a highly accurate kick. Wayne Bennett will run all his plays off the durable, consistent, reliable Yorkshireman.

    England’s most valuable player.

    England's Gareth Widdop

    (AP Photo/NZPA, Ross Setford)

    5 – Josh Hodgson (England)

    England has a strong, mobile, skilful forward pack.

    Sam Burgess runs genuinely frightening straight and hard lines. You’d sooner step in front a bus.

    James Graham could play five-eighth and often does.

    Elliott Whitehead has skill on the edge and around the ruck. And they’ll all run off the No.9 Josh Hodgson, the man to set all these people free, the man who’ll provide quality service and give these big yins soft and sympathetic ball going forward, the best way of going.

    Complements fine passing and kicking with a nimble running game that frightens lumbering forwards. Cameron Smith is the best No.9 in the game. Hodgson is next best.

    4 – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand)

    When Benji Marshall first turned up at Keebra Park High School on Queensland’s Gold Coast, talent scouts sent breathless reports back to clubs that they’d found a kid who could step in mid-air, such were the funky nature of Marshall’s movements.

    Today, across rugby league, “Benji steps” are being ripped off all over the shop, as forwards and backs float up to the line and jag of whatever leg comes to mind.

    But the best at it is Kiwis fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. And if this human pinball can leverage any sort of space in broken play behind a forward pack including strong-arm Martin Taupau, he will set this competition afire.

    3 – Martin Taupau (New Zealand)

    In a game in which defenders are professionally trained in the dark arts of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, the ability to offload in the tackle and set speed men free in “broken” or “second-phase” play is incalculable.

    Step forward the game’s premier off-load man, Martin Taupau.

    Regarded as the strongest man in the game – he can bench-press 180kg, dead-lift 310kg, which combined is the equivalent of picking up Winx – Taupau’s ability to free an arm and pop sympathetic ball for the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Johnson will be pivotal to New Zealand’s chances of making inroads into structured D-lines.

    Coaches hate the chaotic nature of broken field rugby league.

    Taupau is Captain Chaos.

    2 – Cooper Cronk (Australia)

    With his great mate and colleague Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk is the beating heart and head of the Australian side, the lynchpin between thundering forwards and free-running backs.

    Cronk is the man who’ll pilot the competition’s hot favourites and make the right decisions at the right time. He’s cool, he’s clinical, he’s very, very good.

    Cronk’s been doing this stuff since 2006 when he was pitched into the halfback role at Melbourne Storm because they didn’t have anyone else.

    It’s weird to think he wasn’t always a halfback.

    Cronk came to Storm as back-rower, fullback, hooker, bench-man. Today he’s the best halfback at the World Cup. The man.

    Melbourne Storm player Cooper Cronk poses with the Dally M medal at the 2013 NRL Dally M Awards at The Star in Sydney, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    1 – Cameron Smith (Australia)

    As it is for Melbourne Storm and as it is for Queensland, so is it for Australia.

    Cameron Smith is the fulcrum, the power generator of all that’s effective and good about Australia. Deft touches, simple work done perfectly; Billy Slater reckons he hasn’t had a bad pass from Smith in fourteen years.

    Smith’s combination with Slater and Cooper Cronk is close to telepathic, so fluently do they run their pet plays.

    You’ll see them this World Cup: the three-card passing trick at the ruck; the grubber back in-field from Smith’s preternatural left boot; the dummies; the angles; the shows-and-the-goes. Opponents know all his tricks.

    Still can’t stop him.

    The world’s best are coming! Don’t miss your chance to witness history at the 2017 RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD CUP. Buy your tickets here.