‘We’re coming to win the World Cup’

When Australia and New Zealand withdrew from the 2021 Rugby League World Cup a year ago, a storm raged.

As the two leading nations claimed it was unsafe to travel to England during a pandemic, officials on these shores seethed.

There were fears the tournament, which had been six years in the making and backed by £25million of Government money, could be scrapped. Instead it was postponed for 12 months.

“The players would have loved to have come, but their health matters and in particular their mental health,” Mal Meninga, the Australia head coach, tells i,

“Taking the players away from their families, after the many sacrifices they had already made to ensure the NRL competition went ahead [12 NRL teams were placed in a Covid bubble in Queensland last July]wasn’t right.

“Postponing the World Cup was the correct decision.”

That relations have repaired and blossomed ahead of this year’s rearranged tournament says much for the healing nature of time.

Thursday marks 100 days until the World Cup kicks off on 15 October, when England host Samoa at St James’ Park and Australia face Fiji at Headingley.

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“I think this will be the best World Cup ever and the most inclusive,” adds Meninga. “You’ve got the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments so it’s a great opportunity for the rugby league to become more global and reach new audiences, especially in England.”

Meninga was speaking at St Helens, where he spent a memorable season playing in the mid-Eighties, as part of a reconnaissance trip to plan Australia’s base in Manchester this autumn.

He coached the Kangaroos to glory in the last World Cup in 2017 following an enthralling 6-0 final win over England in Brisbane.

“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in,” remembers the 61-year-old. “The quality in attack and defense, the control, the desperation; that’s what rugby league is all about.

“Thankfully we won, but it could have gone either way.”

Much has changed since 2017, with iconic England forwards Sam Burgess, Sean O’Loughlin and James Graham having retired.

Australia’s legendary trio Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have also hung up their boots.

“England have the likes of Luke Thompson and Tom Burgess in the NRL and Elliott Whitehead captain of Canberra Raiders,” says Meninga, a Canberra legend from his playing days.

“Then you have all the St Helens guys in Super League like Alex Walmsley and Jonny Lomax and, when you add in John Bateman and George Williams, there is plenty of experience and leadership.”

Australia will go into the World Cup without a warm-up game and having not played since 2019. The current three-match State of Origin series between Queensland and New South Wales will form their preparation.
Tonga, semi-finalists in 2017, are vying for some of the finest NRL talent and should be even stronger this year but Australia are favorites to retain their crown.

Meninga adds: “Winning competitions is what drives you as a player and the World Cup is an opportunity to realize those dreams. We’re coming here later this year to win it.”

England, take note.

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