At the start of 2020 the rugby league world was looking at the first Kangaroos tour since 1994, with the added bonus of playing in Canada before England.
Fewer players, more space, and a format of the game to which the players aren’t often tested in? It’s no surprise this weekend’s inaugural Rugby League World Cup Nines is shaping up as an unpredictable tournament – a sense of unpredictability which reaches all the way to Australian coach Mal Meninga.
“I won’t know how well we’re going to go probably until we play the Kiwis on Friday night,” Meninga tells The Roar straight after his first training session with the Australian squad earlier this week.
“I’m not quite sure where we’re at with things, but we’ve got a fantastic team.”
It’s not an uneasy uncertainty, though. Despite admitting he’s not sure how his Nines team will fare at Bankwest Stadium this weekend – and let’s be honest, can anyone ever be perfectly certain of a side’s fate before a tournament? – that’s just one of the attractions of the format for the coach.
“That’s the beauty of nines, I think, it’s that you’re not quite sure what team’s going to come up. You don’t know the talents they’ve got in their footy team until you see them in space.”
The Australians are in no way shirking any expectations heading into the World Cup. Meninga is emphatic on that front.
“We want to win it.
“We want to be successful. We’re in the green and gold jersey, we are playing for Australia. One of the expectations of the Australian team is that they’re always up there fighting the finals, so we want to be doing that for sure.
“But every other team will be wanting to do that too. There’s some good prizemoney up for it, so it’s going to be interesting. You’ll find some young player who no one knew much about but he’ll excel at the tournament.”
There’s no surprise to hear who Meninga is eyeing off as Australia’s biggest threats. Emphasising their size and speed, group stage opponents New Zealand, Fiji and the other Pacific Nations, and England all get a mention.
There’s also lots to like about his own squad, with its mix of experienced heads and younger players who are clearly being eyed off for future rep honours in the 13-man game.
“When you talk about an international program, we’ve probably got a young footy team. But we’ve got a lot of experience with Daly Cherry-Evans, Tyson Frizell, Wade Graham, Ben Hunt. The experience there will hold us in good stead.
“So there’s a good blend of youth and experience. But one thing for sure is that they’ve all got talent, and I think nines is going to suit all the players we’ve got in the team.”
Speaking about the likes of youngsters Ryan Papenhuyzen, AJ Brimson, Kalyn Ponga, David Fifita and Rueben Garrick, Meninga is confident they have what it takes to put together impressive careers beyond just playing successfully at club level.
“They’ve all been picked for the Junior Kangaroos for the week after as well.
“We see their potential, they’re players of the future no doubt.
“We’ve got a pretty good schedule coming up internationally. We’ve got a Kangaroo tour next year to England, then the following year’s the World Cup, so it’s a really good time to unearth young talent…
“No doubt in two years’ time, they’ll be pushing for Kangaroos selection.”
From a rep perspective, Meninga has achieved it all as a rugby league coach. Origin wins – and an awful lot of them – were followed by a World Cup win with the Kangaroos in 2017. And having just inked a contract extension, he’ll be around the team as they attempt to defend their title in 2021.
But how does preparing for the Nines World Cup compare to the lead-up to those other tournaments?
“Well we’re obviously used to the 13-man game,” he says with a chuckle.
“But I’m just excited. There are a few innovations with the nines – the 20-40, only being allowed five tackles, having three on three from scrums, that sort of stuff.
“It’s fast-paced, and we’ve picked the type of team that can handle that arena. They’ve all got a lot of speed, a lot of skill as well. But at the same time we’ve got to make sure that all the basics are still there… all those fundamentals don’t change. It’s just a bit more exciting because you got more space to move in with the football.”
Sports boasting a shortened format is hardly a unique or particularly new phenomenon, nor do they come with a cast-iron guarantee of success. But nines certainly feels more T20 cricket or rugby sevens than, say, AFLX, and Meninga is hopeful it can be used as a vehicle to grow rugby league’s international footprint.
“Nines is a product that can showcase our great game around the world. It’s not unlike our 13s, we’ve got a bit of tackle, a bit of barge, but you’ve also got a lot of speed and a lot of skill involved as well.
“So hopefully, one day the powers that be will see that and start looking abroad.”
And for anyone tossing up whether to turn up to the World Cup this weekend, Meninga’s message is clear.
“It’d be a shame if they miss out.
“I look through all the teams and there’s some extraordinary talent right through all of them…
“There are some excitement machines out there, and I think the fans will thoroughly enjoy themselves.”
The Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s will be played this weekend, on Friday, October 18 and Saturday, October 19 at Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta. Get your tickets now!