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International Power Rankings: Are Kiwis favourites for World Cup? Tonga tumbling, Samoa surging

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28th June, 2022
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There’s a World Cup on the horizon. If you watch Fox League or Channel 9, you’d be forgiven for only finding this information out on Saturday lunchtime, but still: World Cup. Big deal. In October. You’ll love it.

No, really: if last weekend – and, for our international readers, the weekend before – are anything to go by, the World Cup is going to be superb. We’ve now seen over half of the participants in 2022 action, so we can at the very least run the rule over some of the tournament.

For obvious reasons, this ranking will only be for those that have actually played – though feel free to make your own judgements on the theoretical concept of Australia’s rugby league team in the comments – and will factor in the obvious outs for some of the competing teams, while speculating wildly about who might end up where once squads are announced.

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1 – New Zealand

The clear standout performers from the two weeks of international action were the Kiwis. That probably isn’t too surprising, given that they were the only team that had their likely first picks to call upon, but their performance in dispatching Tonga on the return of elite footy to New Zealand was spectacular.

That spine: Joey Manu, the best non-fullback fullback on Earth, plus Jahrome Hughes, Dylan Brown and Brandon Smith – reborn in a black jersey after an indifferent season at Melbourne – were everything.

James Fisher-Harris, too, was excellent and has perhaps flown under the representative radar while the rest of his Panthers colleagues have dominate with NSW.

They’re a huge threat and have a pretty tame draw too, with Ireland, Jamaica and Lebanon to face in the group stages before a likely meeting with Fiji in the quarters. They will look ominous by the time they inevitably run into the Kangaroos in the semi-finals.

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Jason Taumalolo charges forward for Tonga against New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

2 – England

Look, England did play a rag tag bunch of Super League ex-pats, but they did so without their best players and looked pretty good in the process.

We’ll not be reading too much into their form, but I can’t realistically put them much lower than this because a) the Combined Nations All Stars would likely beat the Cook Islands and b) England did genuinely look quite good.

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Shaun Wane certainly won’t put too much stock in it because he loves defence and the CNAS didn’t offer too much, but he will be cheered by the performances of two of his Wigan favourites, John Bateman and George Williams, and some younger talent, in particular St Helens gun Jack Welsby.

England had a few out – starting halfback Jonny Lomax chief among them – and were missing all their NRL talent, who fill some serious gaps in their rosters.

It’s really as good as they could have hoped for from their hit-out. Well, except for it being a proper Test match, so play France next time please.

3 – Samoa

Samoa were excellent and put a young Cook Islands team to the sword in the opening game at Campbelltown on Saturday. The potential in this squad is frightening, and that’s without the likely fallback players from Origin.

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The forwards were great, Josh Schuster was at his x factor best without the nonsense and that Panthers left edge of Taylan May and Izack Tago will give anyone problems. They did get a bit sloppy with the game done, but that will happen. They were enjoying themselves.

Martin Taupau leads the Samoan team’s war dance. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

One genuinely wonders how good this team could be if they managed to add Jarome Luai, Junior Paulo, Stephen Crichton and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui into the mix.

The most important figure, however, might be lurking in Super League: Mason Lino has been quietly excellent at Wakefield, kicks superbly and offers the steady hand on the tiller that would allow everyone else to go as bonkers as they like.

4- Tonga

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See what I said about Mason Lino? You can take it and double it for Tonga, who missed Tui Lolohea like anything on Saturday in Auckland.

Their squad has absolutely everything you could wish for and more from a rugby league team, except for a steering wheel. Their last tackle options weren’t great and they were totally unable to generate field position.

The big difference between Mate Ma’a Tonga and the Kiwis was in the spine: the Tongans has Kotoni Staggs, a sometime five eighth but mostly a centre, plus Junior Amone, who was excellent on international debut but is also a run-first five eighth.

If Tonga are to reach their potential at the World Cup, it will require them to sort out the 7 jersey. In practice, that would mean either going with 18-year-old Isiaya Katoa, the Panthers’ SG Ball halfback who signed a big money deal with the Dolphins, 19-year-old Amone or veteran Lolohea.

Sort that out and everyone else should be very, very worried.

Fiji’s Viliame Kikau is tackled by PNG opponent Daniel Russell at Campbelltown Sports Stadium. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

5 – Papua New Guinea

The best contest of the international round was the PNG-Fiji game on Saturday night, and it proved to be the biggest upset of the round too, with the Kumuls getting the win late on an emotional evening for retiring captain David Mead.

Again, it was a tale of two spines: PNG had Lachlan Lam, who plays halfback in the third best team in the NSW Cup, plus Kyle Laybutt, a veteran of nearly a hundred Q Cup games in the halves, Alex Johnston at the back and Wartovo Puara, one of the stalwarts of the PNG Hunters at hooker.

Come World Cup time, you’ll be able to throw Bailey Biondi-Odo into that mix as well, plus Xavier Coates on a wing and UK-based players like Rhyse Martin, Edwin Ipape, Wellington Albert and Watson Boas.

The ability to bring in that spine, plus the core group that play with the PNG Hunters every week, makes PNG a serious threat.

It might have been a surprise that they defeated Fiji on Saturday night, but going into a group with Tonga, Wales and the Cook Islands, they will fear absolutely nobody at the World Cup.

6 – Fiji

It was a tale of two spines, as I said, and Fiji struggled massively with theirs. A penny for the thoughts of Jo Rabele, their coach, when his starting halfback Brandon Wakeham was ruled out and he was unable to turn to any of his Kaiviti Silktails players.

Rabele was asked at the press conference about it, but batted away questions about the current dispute between Fiji Rugby League and the NSW-based, all-Fijian side in the Ron Massey Cup.

The forward and backline of Fiji are, and largely were, outstanding, and consistently delivered the ball to where it needed to be. However, when the time came for creativity, the Bati were no match for the organised defence and commitment of the Kumuls.

Kevin Naiqama, in his defence, has rarely been asked to play five-eighth, and even less often at such short notice. Sunia Turuva, the fullback, was their best player and scored twice, but couldn’t do it all on his own.

It was notable that all three tries came from kicks and, with ball in hand, Fiji only made two line breaks: one when Kyle Laybutt slipped and another after the siren had blown.

In the World Cup, they will be stronger. Api Koroisau will probably come back from NSW duty and immediately upgrade the hooking position, while Wakeham will also help them in the halves.

Joe Lovodua, a livewire 14 at Hull FC, will surely come into consideration, as will Sitiveni Moceidreke of the London Broncos, who covers 1, 6 and 7 and kicks goals too.

Api Koroisau. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Api Koroisau. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

7 – France

We’ve mentioned the PNG Hunters contribution to the Kumuls and the potential for Kaiviti Silktails to assist Fiji. If you want proof of this in action, look no further than France.

They lined up against Wales a week last Sunday in Albi with 12 players from the Catalans Dragons, and all but two have come through the Catalans system. You can’t buy cohesion like that. Even in 2017, they only have 8 Catalans and some of them had barely played Super League, at a time when the Dragons were a weak team.

Now, the likes of Julian Bousquet, Ben Garcia, Ben Jullien and Fouad Yaha have now got hundreds of Super League appearances under their belts, mostly in a very successful team too, and will be a force at the World Cup.

France, however, can never catch a break as far as international rugby league is concerned.

They lost Morgan Escare, one of the most exciting players, for the season and will sweat on his potential replacement, Arthur Morgue, who also went down but is thought to be less serious. Jordan Dezaria fractured his foot too.  

Oh, and they and will go into a group with both England and Samoa. Sacre bleu, as I believe they say.

8 – Cook Islands

It’s hard to split out next two, given the differing standards of opposition that they faced. The Kukis were spirited but ultimately outclassed by Samoa, though the eventual 42-12 scoreline was blown out by late interception tries.

Coach Tony Iro would have learned a lot about the commitment of his boys, not least to overcome a bad start to fight their way back into the contest and give a vastly more talented Samoa side a real shake.

Kayal Iro at the back was excellent – and has been all year for Newtown – while the Marsters cousins, Steven and Esan, showed their worth. Davvy Moale chose them over NSW u-19s this weekend and will only get better ahead of the World Cup, as well fellow young guns Brendan Piakura and Xavier Willison.

Come game 1 against Wales in Leigh in October, they will have a different side to call upon. Imagine the spirit shown on Saturday, but with added faces from the NRL.

They’ll get Val Holmes, if Australia don’t pick him, but also TC Robati, Tepai Moeroa, the Molo brothers – though Francis played against them for Samoa at the weekend – and potentially even James Tamoa, plus Super League talent such as Zane Tetevano, Nat Peteru, Dom Peyroux and Brad Takairangi.

9 – Lebanon

On the other scale of the ‘yeah, but who did they play’ scale is Lebanon, who opened Rep Round in the Southern Hemisphere with a win over Malta at Belmore Oval. Sure, Malta aren’t great, but the Cedars despatched them with relative ease.

Lebanon had a team filled with possibles more than probables, but some of those involved will have done their chances no harm at all.

Names like Elie El-Zakhem, Bilal Maarbani and Kayne Kalache will be familiar to anyone who watches lower grades and all impressed, with Maarbani in particular staking a case for a starting slot.

The team at the World Cup will feature some real big-hitters – if you’re not here for a Mitch Moses, Adam Doueihi halfback pairing, I really can’t help you – and the young Lebanese talent coming through NRL academies will have to support them on the way.

Based on Wednesday night, there’s a fair bit of that about.

10 – Wales

Propping up the list are Wales, who were on the wrong side a result with France and look like they might have a tough old time of it at the World Cup.

If you listed all the teams 1-16 in order of playing strength, you’d get this fantastical, mythical beast once known as the Kangaroos at the top and, in all likelihood, a fight between Wales, Scotland and Greece at the bottom in the ‘thanks for playing’ category.

Neither Scotland nor Greece featured in Rep Round so we can’t talk about them, but Wales fielded a team that game largely from the English second and third tier, and looked like it.

It’s likely they will get stronger, with Regan Grace and Gil Dudson leading a host of Super League talent that did not play, while Bradman Best and Tyson Frizell could be drafted in from the NRL.

For Wales, the main messaging was that it was good that they got a game, their first since 2019, and can certainly get strong. They will need to.

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