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World tries to tie Kangaroos down
The Rugby League World Cup is back after eight years, with Aussies the ones to beat.
Last Modified: 10 Oct 2008 09:30 GMT

Brad Fittler lifts the trophy in 2000 at Old Trafford, England [GALLO/GETTY]
With just over two weeks to go until the Rugby League World Cup kicks off in Australia after an eight-year absence, hopeful squads are already going through the hard paces in training to try to wrest the home nation's grip from the old trophy.

It is now 54 years since the French instigated and hosted the first tournament, giving the cup considerably more pedigree than its Union brother.

The original Paul Barrière trophy even comes with its own crime story, having been stolen in 1970 and only discovered in time to be presented to the victorious Australian team in 2000.

The Kangaroos have won the tournament nine times, with Great Britain picking up the other three gongs long ago, and the Test-playing nations in particular will be going blood-and-sand all the way to get their own names etched in the history books.

Kangaroos hold court

Every other squad will have Australia's team photo pinned up on their players' lounge dartboard.

England, Scotland and Ireland will recall Test trouncings in the shirt of Great Britain, while New Zealand will long to put one over on their cousins from beyond the Tasman Sea.

And the rest? Get your heads down and keep the score down is likely to be the mantra.

Although the competition has been structured to prevent the game's minnows being thrown to the Lions...Kangaroos or Kiwis.

The Kangaroos have named seven debutants in their 24-man squad, with Manly Warringah Sea Eagles winger David Williams the biggest surprise of a bunch that also includes Union legend David Campese's nephew Terry.

The news on Thursday is that Melbourne Storm's Michael Crocker has been replaced Anthony Tupou, who was originally picked to play for Tonga.

Crocker was ruled out of the tournament with a broken rib suffered in the grand final loss to Manly.

The Kangaroos celebrate 100 years of RL in Australia when they kick off against Pool One rivals New Zealand on October 26.

Kiwi blow

No smiles for Webb as he misses out [GALLO/GETTY]
A hammer blow for New Zealand as they chase their first trophy is the absence of Leeds Rhinos Superman Brent Webb.

The full back was ruled out on Wednesday following spinal surgery, and is replaced by Jason Nightingale.

Melbourne prop Jeff Lima is also out, replaced by Evarn Tuimavave.

"We've been in touch with both Brent and Jeff and they're obviously devastated," said coach Stephen Kearney.

Leeds managed well enough without Webb in their Grand Final win over St Helens last week, and the Kiwis will be hoping they too can overcome the absence of a fullback who has made the position his own in recent years.

England expects?

The English Super League is in rude health, but as their footballing compatriots in the English Premier League have found out, that doesn't always translate onto the international stage.

Captained by Leeds Rhinos' Jamie Peacock, the squad contains eight players from Leeds and seven from beaten finalists Saints.

The biggest omission is Wigan Warriors front row Stuart Fielden, as coach Tony Smith takes just four specialist props, including Super League Man of Steel James Graham.

England raise the curtain on the tournament with their opener against Papua New Guinea on October 25.

Tricolores want tries

Success with Wigan made Monie a legend in England [GALLO/GETTY]
France are one of the outsiders who could make a big impression, with their players honed, toughened and given that vital big-match experience playing in the English Super League for three years.

The French are also likely to have one of the better-gelled squads, featuring as it does 14 Super League players – 12 of them from Catalans Dragons – and with two weeks longer to prepare.

League legend John Monie named his side on September 24, long before the domestic seasons in England and Australia had finished.

And there can be few better men to have at the helm.

The Iceman is arguably the best coach the sport has ever known, having won four back-to-back league and cup doubles in charge of Wigan after coaching the Parramatta Eels in their golden era.

But former Catalans and Harlequins star Julien Rinaldi says it is the Super League that will be most telling as France, who finished runners-up in 1954 and 1968, try to get back to the top of the world game.

"Since the Dragons went into Super League the playing standards of the French players have improved considerably," Rinaldi told the World Cup official site.

"And in the domestic French game standards are going up as everybody wants to be the same as in Super League."

France open against Scotland in Pool Two on October 26.

Samoa go forth

Samoa are fourth-favourites behind New Zealand with most bookmakers, and they certainly have enough names from the NRL and ESL to make an impression in Pool Three.

Wigan's George Carmont and Leeds' Ali Lauitiiti are among eight English-based players, while 13 Samoans hail from clubs Down Under.

Penrith brothers Frank and Tony Puletua will be on home turf when they open against Islander rivals Tonga at the CUA Stadium on October 31 on what is likely to be a fright night for anyone not used to bone-crunching tackles.

Big up Tonga

Mason roughs up France last time around [GALLO/GETTY]
"We've got strength, individual brilliance and players who can try and produce magical things," Tonga coach Jim Dymock told the World Cup official site.

A squad bristling with NRL talent gives credence to that statement, while Sydney Roosters' Willie Mason reckons they can even get to the semi-finals.

"The Tongan team has far more depth and ability than the one I played with back in 2000," said the NRL big-gun.

The big Islanders have Ireland in their sights first, lining up against the Wolfhounds on October 27.

Scottish spirit

Scotland go into the World Cup with one of the stars of the sport roaming their wing after narrowly missing out on a call-up to Australia.

Michael Robertson grounded three tries for Manly in the 40-0 pummelling of Melbourne, and Scot coach Steve McCormack said he was in no doubt about the flyer's hunger to wear the Saltire.

"Mick made it very plain at the beginning of the year that he would be proud and privileged to play for Scotland," McCormack said.

Veteran prop Scot Logan also makes the squad as they prepare to face France.

Irish aye for Pat

English Super League top-scorer for two years in a row, Aussie-born Pat Richards swaps his Wigan shirt for the tricolour of Ireland in an ESL-dominated lineup.

Former Wigan forward Mick Cassidy, who represented England in 1995, will represent the Irish, who on Thursday suffered a major blow when Melbourne Storm prop Brett White withdrew with inflamed joints.

The squad includes three Irish domestic players as they gun for Tonga and Samoa in Pool Three.

Fiji fun

Only 500 people play rugby league in Fiji, but the top XIII are big entertainers when it comes to international competition.

NRL stars Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta) and Daryl Millard (Canterbury) are welcome additions as is ESL team Bradford Bulls star Semi Tadulala.

PNG have RL in blood

Rugby league is the national sport in Papua New Guinea, who reached the quarter-finals eight years ago. Just under the half of the under-20 population play the sport.

The big guns for PNG are Nico Slain, Michael Mark, and Penrith's Paul Aiton and Keith Peters from the NRL.

PNG are yet to name their final squad ahead of their match with England.

Pool 1
Australia, New Zealand, England, Papua New Guinea

Pool 2
France, Fiji, Scotland

Pool 3
Tonga, Ireland, Samoa

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