The Rugby League World Cup kicks off in the early hours of Friday morning as England kick off their campaign off against reigning champions Australia.
The Lions will be up against it on Friday, as they haven’t beaten the Kangaroos since 2006, and although Australia will be without Jonathon Thurston and Greg Inglis, England will still have a big mountain to climb.
But we saw glimpses of England’s confidence with their win over Samoa back in May, and Friday is a great chance for them to write their names into the record books.
David Lawrenson is Media executive for the Rugby Football League, and Sports Gazette tracked him down to get his thoughts on the Rugby League World Cup.
ALL Four home nations are competing – What can we expect from them in this tournament?
“Well, I think the main focus is going to be on England, because they are the main focus as they are the best chance of a home nation team winning the tournament.
But the other home nations, they can really advance their cause by doing well in the tournament so you’d be looking at Scotland, Wales and Ireland to win a few games and give Rugby League in their countries a bit of momentum.”
How do you think this England side fairs up against the side that lost in the semi-finals back in 2013?
“It’s a good question, I think it’s a better squad. I think over the last few years we’ve had some very good forwards with the likes of Sam Burgess but I think we lacked a bit in the half-back.
“This time around, we’ve got some genuine half-backs like Luke Gale from Castleford.
“He’s a very good player and has done very well with Castleford this year.
“He has a very good kicking game and then you’ve got George Williams who’s the Wigan Standoff. He’s a young lad but he’s got massive potential.
“He’s got speed off the mark, he can side step, so he can definitely cause problems and I think that was one of the problems we had last time because you just wouldn’t get that from the likes of Kevin Sinfield, so I think the half-back position has definitely improved from last time out.
“I still think the forwards are strong, Sam Burgess is world class and there’s other guys in there that also stand out.
“The likes of Sean O’Loughlin (Captain) is at the veteran stage of his career but he’s very good, very abrasive but a good leader and as a fan, I’d like to see young Mike McMeekan get a chance.
“I remember Mike coming through the academy at London Broncos then went up to Castleford and he was just a revelation at second row and he’s got great hand skills but I’d like to see him in there at some point, just to give England something different to say a big guy whose just got physical strength.
“At Hooker, I’m glad that James Roby is back in the international fold. He’s been in and out over the years because he has a tough season with St. Helens, he plays generally for 80 minutes which is unusual for a hooker, but he’s shown he’s still got it and you need that crucial position in Rugby League because at Dummy-half, lots of things happen off the back of him and he can make breaks anywhere on the field so I’d say the opposition have really got to keep an eye on him and that’s what you want.”
Do you think England have a pack to match the likes of Australia and New Zealand?
“Yes. I think that’s been pretty evident over the last few years. The likes of James Graham, he’s been fantastic for St. Helens and been playing in the NRL for a few years now and he’s become one of the best forwards in the NRL.
“He’s someone who will not take a backwards step. He’s a guy that will make the hard yards but has also got great passing skills and because of his seasons in the NRL, he knows what it takes to compete at the highest level.”
How do you think England will fair up against the other teams in their group?
“Well, I think Friday is a crucial game, it’s the first game and England would want to hit the ground running.
“It’s not the end of the world if they lose but obviously they’d have to build themselves up for the next few matches and although they should win, it’s always a bit of a mountain to climb if you lose the opening game so a lot depends on how they react if that happens.
“But if they win, obviously they’d be on cloud nine and that would mean they’d have an easier path through to the final because it means they won’t meet New Zealand in the semis.
“That was their downfall last time but England have shown that they can, even if they lose that first game, can bounce back.”
Do you have a prediction for who will win?
“If I was a betting man, I’d have to go with the Australians.
“They’ve got more resources, more players to choose from in every position whereas we and maybe New Zealand have got a pretty good 17.
“But if they get any injuries or someone’s not playing well and they would struggle whereas Australia can probably pick three quality players in every position.
“And with them playing at home, your money’s got to be on them, but I would fancy England to make the final.”
With Australia looking dominant once more, it is hard to look past them this cycle. However with England having a much improved squad from 2013, fans will wonder if 2017 will be their year.
Featured image photo credit: Steve Mascord