At the start of this year’s Rugby League World Cup, many assumed it’d be a race between Australia, New Zealand and possibly England to the Lang Park final in December.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the World Cup: poor crowds, predictable results (France, Scotland, Wales and USA finished with one draw between them) and a flawed finals system (Ireland – with two wins – missed the finals behind Samoa – who only scraped a draw against Scotland).
The Pacific nations have saved this tournament: specifically Tonga, Fiji and PNG.
TONGA = After an easy win against Scotland and a tough win against Samoa (at that stage the best RLWC game so far), they shocked New Zealand in their final pool game. The Kiwis were expected to win with Tonga gallant losers. Tonga won 28-22 to secure top spot in pool B. They backed it up with another tough win against a brilliant Lebanon in the quarter final. While obviously struggling after their big game against New Zealand, Tonga found enough to win and will play either England or PNG in the semi final. The “defection” of Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo from the Kangaroos was controversial pre-tournament, but gave Tonga a vital boost in class and experience.
FIJI = Before the tournament, Fiji were in the news with Jarryd Hayne – snubbed by Australia – coming back to the Bati (he played for them in the 2008 World Cup and with Australia in 2013). Drawn in the easier pool D, they ripped past USA (58-12), Wales (72-6) and Italy (38-10) to finish top. While they did what was expected, surely that would be it; surely New Zealand would have too much class for them in the quarter final? In the tournament’s biggest upset, they beat the Kiwis 4-2 in Wellington. Next stop is a Lang Park semi against Australia. While they’ll have the backing of neutrals, Australia should beat them, though expect Fiji to rip in and give Australia a tougher test then against Samoa. With the final coming up, it could be just what Australia needs.
PNG = Like Fiji, PNG were drawn in a easy pool with Ireland and Wales. The biggest advantage: all three pool games in Port Moresby and some NRL talent to bolster the Queensland Intrust Super Cup-winning PNG Hunters. PNG pulverised Wales (50-6) and USA (64-0) and beat a gallant Ireland with a last-minute try (another contender for the tournament’s best game). They’re not without hope against England either. The poms have been underpar: losing to Australia, barely beating Lebanon and failing to go on with it after a big first half against France. Australia’s deep-seated dislike of England (especially with the Ashes coming up) means PNG will have plenty of support in Melbourne. It wouldn’t surprise if the Kumuls caused another boilover.
The best thing about the Pacific teams? Their passion. The pre-game “cultural challenges” are as compelling as the games themselves and have revitalised the normally boring national anthems, usually seen as a necessary routine before the game can start. It’s a reminder that these Pacific nations care about rugby league; it’s easy to forget that when the modern game seems to shoot itself in the foot at times.
In a brilliant sense of timing, the NRL have created a stand-alone Pacific weekend before Origin two next year, with Tonga, Samoa, Lebanon (a just reward for their amazing RLWC) and Papua New Guinea (and two more unannounced teams) playing at Campbelltown Stadium on June 23rd. Based their World Cup performances, this should be an amazing night of footy; it could even outstrip Origin.