Rugby League World Cup 2017 – Week 1: Learned, Liked and Disliked

Week 1 of the World Cup gave us tries, boilovers, and surprisingly, Wayne Bennett praising referees. Plenty to dissect and Learn, Like or Dislike.

The 15th Rugby League World Cup has kicked off with matches played over the last weekend across Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. In a packed schedule of matches we saw a pair of powerhouses open proceedings with a wary circling of each other. PNG, cheered on by a boisterous and excited home crowd, showed that a knockout phase finish is not beyond them. Tonga unveiled their team full of stars and Ireland and Lebanon provided the competitions first major upsets with victories over Italy and France, respectively. 

In an attempt to make sense of it all before all 14 countries do it all over again this weekend, lets go through what we Learned, Liked and Disliked from an intriguing first week of Rugby League World Cup 2017.

  1. 1 What did we learn?

    Tonga means business

    The fact that the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita forwent opportunities to earn more money representing Australia and New Zealand probably gave us a hint of this, but Tonga's 50-4 opening week smashing of Scotland most definitely confirmed it.

    The island nation have assembled a star-studded squad and the sight of the men in red tearing into the hapless Scots in the Cairns sun will have sent a little shiver up the spine of those scheduled to face them in the next few weeks.

    We were also given a glimpse at Michael Jennings at his rampaging best. Not in Laurie Daley's plans for NSW this year, the veteran Eels centre gave a reminder to the football world that he still possess some serious wheels running in three tries.

    The Storm are going to miss Cooper Cronk

    Again, another fact that was perhaps well known before kick-off in the tournament, but the champion half-back gave another showcase of the remarkable combination he has with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater in the Kangaroos first up 18-4 win over England.

    In a dour struggle that never reached any great heights, the three modern-day greats combined masterfully to ensure the Kangaroos kept the English at bay in a contest that was much tighter than the final scoreline suggests.

    It was a rusty performance by the Australian team as a whole, one they will no doubt look to improve upon in weeks to come. That they could rely on the likes of Cronk, Smith and Slater to get the job done is a luxury that Coach Mal Meninga must be thankful for and one that Melbourne Storm fans will no doubt miss when the 2018 NRL Season comes around.

    Minnows dream big

    While many pundits are of the opinion we are set for another tournament decided between Australia, New Zealand, and England, the less fancied teams have refused to accept this assessment and are dreaming big. This was evident in week one across a host of matches. 

    You could see it when Tonga took the field against Scotland, with star forwards Taumalolo and Fifita, both men choosing to represent the island nation rather than Rugby League heavyweights Australia and New Zealand. Lebanon celebrating victory over France and vowing to do similar against England and Australia. Ireland coming to their clash against Italy with a plan to shut down James Tedesco and executing it beautifully. It was also on show when a full house in Port Moresby urged the Kumuls on against Wales.

    While it is yet to be seen whether this passion and energy can cause a result similar to Japan defeating South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, if there isn't an upset to shock the world at this tournament it won't be through lack of desire or national pride.

  2. 2 What did we like?

    PNG delight a packed house in Port Moresby

    Papua New Guinea have high hopes of qualifying for the knockout phase of this year's World Cup and if Week 1 is anything to go by, they are set to ride their passionate home support all the way through the group stages.

    The Kumuls had not beaten Wales in their three previous attempts and in their last meeting suffered a humiliating 50-10 defeat. This result was a distant memory by the end of this match though, as was PNG's biggest ever Test Match winning margin, with the Kumuls running riot in Port Moresby crossing for 10 tries in a 50-6 annihilation.

    Their next assignment looms as potentially one of Week 2's biggest contests. The Kumuls will host the Irish, who also impressed in Week 1, with the winner taking a massive step towards qualification for the next stage of the tournament.

    England takes it to the Aussies

    Although England didn't come away with the victory from their competition opener against Australia, they will have taken away a belief that they can more than take it up to the World Champions.

    Tonight wasn't the destination it was just part of the journey

    England Coach Wayne Bennett - Post Match

    Bennett has never been one to give too much away in press conferences but this nugget is the solid gold truth. In a tournament decided by a one-game playoff in a lot of ways, perhaps the England team are better served by an 'honourable loss' than an upset victory in game one. Bennett will have kept a few cards up his sleeve for any potential rematch for all the marbles, which means from a fans point of view we got the perfect result.

    The rusty Kangaroos will be bouyed by eking out a win while below their best, and the English with the winningest coach in NRL history also knows his team can mix it with the world's best. 

    Having helped the New Zealand team turn around a first-up loss into World Cup Final glory last time it was contested here, England couldn't hope for a better man in the coaching chair in this situation than Bennett. After making a career out of an 'us against them' mentality, can the Super Coach prosper from it once again and lead England to their first title since 1972.

    Canberra becomes Beirut for a day

    There were extraordinary scenes in Canberra on Sunday when Lebanon shocked France to win their first ever Group Match at the Rugby League World Cup. In a dramatic contest, scores were level with just 10 minutes to play before Mitchell Moses stepped up and won the game for the Cedars with a masterful performance when his team needed him most.

    Despite boasting a number of NRL players, headlined by Moses and Robbie Farrah, and coached by Brad Fittler, the Cedars were not expected to cause the French any real headaches in their Group A clash at GIO Stadium. A double to Travis Robinson and a Man of the Match performance from Moses changed all expectations on Lebanon's chances in the tournament.

    The only sour note on an otherwise glorious day for Lebanon was the freak pre-game training accident that prevented second-rower Chris Saab from taking his place in the starting team. The 36-year-old journeyman was concussed after being knocked off balance by a trainer with a tackling bag, while completing a pre-game drill hitting his head on the turf.

    Fortunately for Saab he is expected to take his spot in the team for the Cedars next Group Match and beyond, which now could include a Quarter Final appearance with Lebanon in prime position to advance behind Australia and England from Group A. What might have seemed like a pipe dream before the tournament started will become reality unless the French can upset Australia and England.

  3. 3 What did we dislike?

    Scots wilt in Cairns heat

    RealSport knows of many supporters of Scottish heritage who perched themselves down on Sunday afternoon with their Irn-Bru and dreamed of upsetting the star-studded Tongan team.

    With Danny Brough's dinky kicking game, the go forward of Luke Brooks and a raft of young players keen to prove themselves on the world stage, hopes were high that the Bravehearts would take it right up to the more fancied Tongan side.

    A spirited start raised Scottish hopes but a glut of defensive work meant they quickly tired in the face of the Tongan onslaught. They continued to fight throughout but were no match for their opponents eventually succumbing to a 50-4 defeat.

    Calls for the NRL to revert to one referee

    Wayne Bennett and Cameron Smith were among the throng of Rugby League identities who called for the NRL to return one referee after the first week of the World Cup. The consensus among those in this camp seeming to be that there was correlation between the open play on show in the World Cup and the fact that the games were officiated by a single referee.

    Bennett went so far as to suggest that the stubbornness was the only possible reason preventing the NRL from implementing the change.  The fact that it was a small sample size and that there could be a number of other reasons responsible for the open play, not enough to stop the England Coach from voicing his support for one referee. We are sure that the opportunity to kick the NRL at the same was a just a small bonus and not the sole reason for his comments.

    We, like every other League fan, want to see expansive and open contests in the NRL but reverting to one referee won't solve the problem of slowed rucks and play the balls. A number of proponents of the change have suggested that it would mean less penalties and scrums would be awarded, but rather than closing our eyes to player's mistakes, shouldn't they be encouraged to stop making them?

    Expect the calls to grow louder as the competition continues but don't bank on the NRL listening to them, nor should they.

    Radio silence

    Can someone please explain how it is that World Cup organisers have been unable to reach an agreement with a single radio station to broadcast the tournament? 

    Real Sport understands that Triple M and ABC were unwilling to pay a paltry $50,000 for the rights because of clashes with their Ashes coverage.

    A last-minute bid by SBS fell over less than 48-hours before the tournament due to "geo-blocking" issues that would mean that their broadcast would compromise on those of other rights holders in other countries.

    Organisers are hopeful a deal can be thrashed out before the Final on November 2, but those of you who enjoy listening to the radio while mowing the lawn shouldn't hold your breath about being able to hear the World Cup.

    RealSport Rugby League Editor Daniel Lang discussed this and a whole lot more on The Pinch Hitters with Boz and Pav. Listen to the conversation below. What did you think of Week 1 of the Rugby League World Cup? Have your say in the comments below.

Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?