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Rugby League World Cup: A Look at the Contenders

The Rugby League World Cup Final will take place on November 19th at Old Trafford
The Rugby League World Cup Final will take place on November 19th at Old Trafford
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Rugby League fans in the Northern Hemisphere were denied the chance to see some of the games' best back in 2021 when the scheduled RLWC2021 was postponed a year due to Australia and New Zealand (the favourites for the trophy) refusing to travel because of COVID. The rescheduled tournament is confusingly still branded RLWC2021 but will be taking place this winter and organisers will be hoping that absence has made the heart grow fonder, driving ticket sales and interest in the event. A slick marketing campaign and the genuine appeal of the 'most inclusive World Cup ever' has seen the tournament gain traction in mainstream media seldom afforded to rugby league. With the men's, women's and wheelchair tournament all happening in unison and covered live on the BBC, it promises to be a massive opportunity for rugby league to hit the national consciousness.

Since 1972, Australia have won 8 of the last 9 tournaments (New Zealand upset the odds in 2008) and the Kangaroos once again go into this tournament as odds-on favourites. However, this does look to be the most open RLWC for a generation, with many of the most high profile NRL stars opting to represent heritage nations such as Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, while New Zealand have a squad the envy of most. Here at BettingOdds we've enlisted our resident rugby league nut Billy Grimshaw to give us the lowdown on the contenders for the trophy...

Australia - 8/15

As discussed in the introduction, the Kangaroos' World Cup record is quite simply phenomenal. Their dominance on the international stage over a fifty year period is one rarely matched in any sport or era, and their squad for this World Cup is predictably stacked for this year's postponed tournament. Mal Meninga is one of the greatest players of all time and used to terrorise defences on the international stage in the Green and Gold. He now coaches the side and has been a wonderful ambassador for the international game over the years. Even the great man himself has conceded, however, that this World Cup will be the most hotly contested ever. A few shoo-ins for the Kangaroos first 17, such as winger Brian To'o (Samoa) and forward Jason Taumalolo (Tonga), have decided to represent nations of their family heritage rather than don the famous Green and Gold, something that would have been unthinkable just nine years ago in the 2013 tournament held on these shores. This of course weakens the Kangaroos but also strengthens some potential rivals and the odds available for an Australian success are some of the longest for years in a World Cup or international series.

They are still the right favourites, with the best player in the world Nathan Cleary pulling the strings from half back and classy operators such as James Tedesco, Cameron Munster and Latrell Mitchell sprinkling star dust through the back line, but in the forwards they do not look as dominant as they have in the past. The ARL (Australian Rugby League) are notoriously difficult and have decided to number their squad from 1-24 in order of caps picked up rather than in a positional sense as was intended, which will grate on traditional rugby league fans and confuse newcomers. They are just about the right favourites but with a raft of challengers it would take a brave punter to be going big on them at the current price and for the good of the game overall it would be wonderful to see the Aussies toppled. Their draw could see them take on New Zealand in the semi-finals and I think there is enough in the 'against' column to swerve the Kangaroos and hope for a new(ish) name on the trophy.

Australia vs Fiji Odds

New Zealand - 4/1

Since odds were released on these shores for the rescheduled Rugby League World Cup, one of the big market movers has been The Kiwis. Rugby league aficionados were perplexed to see early 8/1 quotes about a victory for New Zealand considering the potential strength of their squad, and I would argue 4/1 still has plenty of juice in it. There are no weaknesses whatsoever in the 24 man squad, and when predicting the strongest 17 coach Michael Maguire will pick one is taken aback by the sheer size and skill packed in. Jahrome Hughes is a brilliant and underrated player who will guide the team around the park from #7, while Dylan Brown and Joseph Manu at stand off and full back respectively, will add plenty of X-Factor to the Kiwis' attack.

The forward pack is colossal, as has become the norm with this side, but they also have plenty of guile to go with the brute force. Their group looks laden with potential big score victories and so backing a New Zealand outside back to be top tournament try scorer could be a shrewd move, while they also possess the man with the greatest nickname in rugby league 'The Hectic Cheese' Brandon Smith who looks set to start on the bench and will no doubt be sent on to cause chaos whenever he is required by coach Maguire. He is one of the great characters of the game and his pre and post match interviews are ones to be hotly anticipated by first time viewers of rugby league. There are no tips in this preview of the tournament but if forced to hand one out to anyone keen to have an outright bet on RLWC2021, I could not recommend any side other than The Kiwis. Their 17 is a match for anyone (yes, even Australia) and with cold and wet conditions less problematic than they may prove for some other tourists, New Zealand are a leading chance to claim their first World Cup since 2008.

Samoa - 11/1

Some bookmakers will be cursing their early odds compilers if Samoa prove to be as strong as many predict at RLWC2021, as the tiny pacific island team were priced up as 66/1 no hopers earlier this year! Those prices were quickly snaffled by punters who could see the potential of this Samoa team, but even the most hopeful backer could not have foreseen Samoa assembling a squad quite as strong as they now have. Their odds of single figures for outright glory, and the fact they are favourites to beat England in England in the World Cup opener, illustrate the bookmakers have now finally cottoned on to the potential of Matt Parish's squad. The coach could in fact prove to be the weak link for this team, with his CV questionable at best and lacking at worst, but with eight members of the all-conquering back-to-back NRL champions Penrith Panthers' squad included in Samoa's touring party, the players may not need much coaching. 

The Samoans could name their numbers 2-6 as the Penrith backline, which would be a fearsome prospect for Group opponents England at St James' Park on Saturday 15th October. Brian To'o is undoubtedly the best winger in the world and the likeable metre eater will cause all sorts of chaos on kick returns for the England chase. Jarome Luai is his best friend and teammate but is much less likeable due to some arrogant and questionable behaviour. There is no doubting Luai's quality however and he can star for Samoa throughout the tournament if in the mood. All the signs are the players have been inspired by the success of Tonga in 2017 and Samoa are definitely ones to watch. If the squad are not too undercooked, they really should beat England this weekend due to their raft of NRL representatives compared to the hosts mainly Super League squad, and if they do secure that victory expect their odds for outright glory to contract still further.

Rugby League Odds

England - 16/1

As much as Samoa have been shortening and shortening for World Cup glory, Shaun Wane's England have been drifting for months. The undoubted best club team in the Northern Hemisphere over the past four years has been St Helens and they would have brought a big chunk of the squad for Wane to choose from were it not for injury. Tommy Makinson and Morgan Knowles are still here from the all-conquering Saints, but England will be without Alex Walmsley, Mark Percival and Jonny Lomax from the four-in-a-row Super League champions. Shaun Wane is a proud Wiganer and has made no secret of that fact, however some of his squad selections look simply bizarre if judging players purely on form and not their past connections to the former Wigan Warriors coach. Michael Mcillorum wasn't international standard at his best and is now way past that, but is in at hooker as one of Wane's trusted aggressive lieutenants, The quality just isn't there in this England team unfortunately and although Wane will have his players bursting with motivation and pride for the jersey, it is seriously unlikely they can turn over any of the Southern Hemisphere big beasts.

A home victory would work wonders for the game on these shores and of course, like all rugby league fans, I pray my pessimism is misplaced and England can dramatically beat Australia in an epic Old Trafford final. If they are to do so they will need every player at their very best, conditions on their side and a few slices of good fortune. They will also need captain Sam Tomkins, who has lost his pace but none of his skill, and new kid on the block Jack Welsby to stand up and be counted. These are the two players in the England squad, along maybe with rookie winger Dom Young, who possess the star quality to win games on their own. George Williams had a poor season by his standards for Warrington in Super League but retains Wane's faith and will start at half back with either Welsby or renaissance man Marc Sneyd, while the pack is still decent if not as formidable as the days gone by with Peacock, Morley, Sinfield, Burgess et al. England's price is about right now at 16/1 and they are not no-hopers, however the team will have a mighty job on to be able to compete with the stacked NRL squads of Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and maybe even Tonga.

Tonga - 16/1

Undoubtedly the story of international rugby league this century, the rise of Tonga has been a welcome tonic to some of the sport's failings. Bolstered by trailblazing defectors like Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo, the Tongans have beaten Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand in recent years and were a debatable video refereeing decision away from the 2017 World Cup final. Backed by a fanatical set of supporters whenever they take to the field in the Southern Hemisphere, they will of course not have that wall of noise to rely on over in wintery England,  but the squad will need no extra motivation to go one place better than the 2017 heartbreak. Coach Kristian Woolf has been supremely successful in his spell in Super League, winning three Super League titles in a row at St Helens, and next year will head back home down-under but will keep the Tonga job he has held for nearly a decade. He is a brilliant motivator and tactical mind and for all his squad is slightly weaker than that of Samoa, the clash of coaches Woolf vs Parish is a no contest and this could make all the difference.

Expect Tonga to provide plenty of fireworks throughout the tournament with a power packed squad and plenty of exciting backs, but their best chance may have passed with the last few years and the aging of some of their stars. Their RLWC opener vs Papua New Guinea on Tuesday in St Helens is one for all neutrals to make sure they watch as the big hits could be legendary, but it will take a herculean effort from the Tongans to win the World Cup with their tricky looking route to the final and potential gaps in the squad that were not there back in 2017.

The Rest

Fiji should be as strong as they've ever been for this World Cup and they of course made a famous semi final back in 2017 when eliminating a New Zealand squad in disarray in the quarter finals. They will have a job on making it that far this campaign with such strength in opposition, and their massive odds reflect their chance of lifting the trophy. None of the other Northern Hemisphere teams will have even dreamt of making the final, let alone victory, so a quarter final spot is the best the rest will be hoping for. If you've never really given rugby league a go, this is the perfect opportunity to dip your toe into the sport and with the BBC covering every game, it couldn't be simpler to get your winter international sporting fix.

England vs Samoa Odds
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