Well, the first week of matches in the 2014 Four Nations is now done and dusted with the double header in Brisbane producing two outstanding contests, showcasing why the game continues to go from strength to strength at international level.
The 47,813 people at Suncorp Stadium witnessed a free flowing affair between England and Samoa, resulting in a 32-26 win to the English.
Then they watched the Kiwis run away with a 30-12 victory over the world champions, the Kangaroos.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the second round of the European Cup commenced in what was a big weekend of international rugby league.
So what were the main talking points from Week 1?
Can Australia bounce back?
The biggest talking point from the weekend was no doubt the end of the Kangaroos’ 16-match winning streak at the hands of New Zealand. The world champions were thoroughly out-enthused and outclassed by their trans-Tasman rivals.
Going into the Four Nations, I thought the Australian side was significantly weakened and the line-up that took the field was without the world-class stars and aura that has become synonymous with a Kangaroos side.
The Aussie forward pack was completely dominated and the debutants in the backline really struggled with the step up to the highest level. The Kiwis had well and truly beaten the Kangaroos and as the match went on the more the New Zealanders shined.
Key injuries to Daly Cherry-Evans and Greg Inglis certainly hurt the Australian side, however the result was highly unlikely to change if they had stayed on the field.
The Kangaroos now find themselves in a do-or-die clash against England on Sunday afternoon in Melbourne. Just the thought of this match has me pumped and there is no doubt that Cameron Smith and Tim Sheens will pull the right strings this week to ensure that the men in green and gold are ready to ensure their campaign doesn’t end when the full-time siren sounds at AAMI park.
The fact is though, there is a real chance that Australia will be knocked out in straight sets, meaning the scene is set for Sunday to showcase everything that is great about international rugby league.
The Kiwis should have started as favourites
The lack of respect for the opposition by the Australian public led to New Zealand and England starting the tournament at ridiculous odds of $6 and $15 respectively, with Australia sitting at $1.22. Not only was the inaccurate and unrealistic pricing disrespectful to the other three competing teams, it placed unnecessary pressure on a weakened and young Australian outfit.
I was at the Anzac Test match back in May and witnessed the Kiwis go within 15 minutes of beating the world champions at full strength. The players that were missing from Saturday’s match were a major reason why the Kangaroos got home on that Friday night in May.
This factor should have been enough to install the world cup finalists as favourites for the Four Nations title. New Zealand historically get better as the tournament progresses. If they get to Wellington, where they will have a raucous home crowd behind them, they will be unbelievably hard to beat and are certainly the title favourites in my eyes.
Is England capable of breaking the title drought?
Yes. Steve McNamara’s side weren’t at their best on Saturday but they were certainly in a high quality contest. It would be incredibly unfair to overlook how well Samoa played on Saturday, they certainly put in an outstanding performance.
But England can build on that performance, and will see their skipper return for the clash against Australia this weekend. They are certainly missing the services of James Roby at hooker, however the two debutants who rotated at dummy half on Saturday night will be better for the run but need to go up a couple gears when taking on Australia and New Zealand.
The halfback Matty Smith will also need to be in career best form over the next few weeks if England are to lift the title. This is his chance to shine and lay claim to the vacant number seven jersey. Many would say Smith has been handed the opportunity due to the injury suffered by Johnny Lomax, who looks set to be the long-term halfback for his country.
Along with the above points, the elephant in the room is England’s record in the Southern Hemisphere. They haven’t been able to perform to their potential Down Under and are desperate to rack up a win against one of their fancied rivals in their backyard.
The ultimate goal for McNamara and his men is to take the Four Nations trophy back to England, however if they fail to do that, I personally feel they need to defeat one of the heavyweights in this tournament. The next World Cup will be held in Australia and New Zealand in 2017 and this is England’s last trip Down Under until then. The psychological impact of gaining at least a win over the next two matches will be enormous as England build towards 2017.
Are Samoa capable of an upset?
I’ve already stated just how well Samoa played against England at Suncorp and wasn’t it great to see. Some people questioned whether Toa Samoa should be in this tournament considering they are not the fourth ranked side. Well, the Samoans certainly answered that question in style.
It’s highly unlikely that Samoa can grab a win against the number one and two ranked sides in the world, however if they perform like they did on the weekend they will certainly give themselves every chance. Their performance goes to show just how much the last two World Cups and the Four Nations concept has benefitted the smaller nations.
Scotland in the box seat to seal Four Nations debut
Following on from the above paragraph, there have been four different nations (France, Papua New Guinea, Wales and Samoa) that have now competed in the Four Nations tournament since the concept began in 2009. Coincidentally, this year’s tournament is only the fourth edition, meaning that there has been a different team joining the ‘Big Three’ in each instalment.
That trend looks set to continue, with Scotland having won two from two going into the final round of the European Cup. The 2014 European Cup carries extra significance as the champions will be given the added bonus of qualifying for the 2016 Four Nations tournament held in the UK.
The Bravehearts have continued their amazing form from last year’s World Cup, starting with a 42-18 hammering of Wales in the opener last weekend. Then, led by Danny Brough, the 2013 Super League Man of Steel, the Scotsmen defeated Ireland 25-4 only 48 hours ago and now only need to perform well against France to claim the trophy.
France suffered a shock 22-18 loss to Ireland on the opening weekend, however the Chanticleers bounced back to defeat Wales 42-22 in Albi on Saturday night. This leaves the equation simple for Scotland, a win this coming weekend and the title and Four Nations spot is their.
What a massive achievement that would be Scottish rugby league. However, the French can claim the cup if they can defeat the Bravehearts by 17 points or more, ensuring that we are in for an amazing finish.
That wraps up an amazing weekend of rugby league played at the highest level across the globe, and I’m certainly looking forward to another healthy dose of Test matches this weekend – with even more on the line for each nation.
There’s plenty on offer for rugby league fans, with the rematch of last year’s World Cup classic between New Zealand and Samoa taking place in Whangarei on Saturday, the European Cup battle between France and Scotland and the heavyweight clash between Australia and England kicking off at 4pm on Sunday.
I for one am heading down to Melbourne for Sunday’s epic and cannot wait.