Australia appears to have a seamless ride to the championship
With the 2008 Rugby League World Cup about to begin, nine teams will be vying to restrain heavily favored Australia from winning its seventh straight title.
The 2008 Rugby League World Cup gets under way in Australia on Saturday, Oct. 25, and ESPN360 is the only place you'll be able to watch all the games in the United States.
Before the tournament's kickoff, here's a breakdown of everything you'll need to know to get you midfield seats to what Rugby League has to offer.
There have been 12 erratically scheduled RLWCs since its inception back in 1954. The most recent one came in 2000, when Australia took home the cup for the sixth straight time (Great Britain is the only other team to have won the RLWC, notching victories in '54, '60 and '72). The 2008 RLWC will field 10 teams, down from 16 in 2000. Australia, New Zealand, England, France and Papua New Guinea were automatic entrants, while Fiji, Ireland, Samoa, Scotland and Tonga completed the card. The teams are divided into three groups:
Group A: Australia, England, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (three will advance to the semifinals) Group B: Fiji, France and Scotland Group C: Ireland, Samoa and Tonga (One team each from Groups B and C will advance and meet in a semifinal-qualifying playoff)
Two points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and none for a loss.
Australia: The Kangaroos are the longstanding clear favorite heading into the tournament. Playing on home soil and seeking its seventh consecutive RLWC crown, this tourney is Australia's to lose. Look for this impressively powerful and well-skilled squad to rack up the tries, seemingly at will, as it marches through the field.
England: The Three Lions last sniffed at the Cup in 1995 when England played in the tournament for the first time as a stand-alone team (rather than as part of the Great Britain collective) but lost to the Aussies 16-8 in front of a crowd of 66,000 at Wembley Stadium in London. This time England will bring an experienced, speed-laced team to the pitch for its Nov. 2 group -- a must-see showdown with the Aussies. England stands with New Zealand as one of the teams posing an upset threat to the powerful Kangaroos.
Fiji: The Bati has assembled a team lacking experience but will more than overcome that deficit with spirit, determination and an innovative playing style. Group B matches with Scotland and an improved French squad will test the resolve of this tournament dark horse.
France: Les Tricolores have beefed up their front row and added three Aussies, including Jarrod Taylor, who led the French premiership in tries this year. As a much-improved offensive force, combined with a stingy defense, France could make noise in the tourney and perhaps reach the final, something it has done only twice, the last time in 1968.
Ireland: The Wolfhounds sport one of the biggest and toughest defenses in the tournament. A swaggering squad dominated by English Super League players, the Wolfhounds have the necessary speed and try-scoring tools to get points on the board early. If they can outlast the assault of their group partners, they might advance to a playoff berth in which the semifinals would be well within reach.
Rugby League World Cup
• When: Oct. 25 to Nov. 22
• Where: Various venues in Australia
• Who: 10 teams in three pools
• Defending champion: Australia, 2000
• Final: Nov. 22, Brisbane, Australia
• Watch: On ESPN360
New Zealand: The Kiwis have the strut of a champion contender, bolstered by a versatile squad of solid club players with big-game experience. Runner-up to the Kangaroos in the last RLWC, the Kiwis are looking for revenge, and this could be their year. They'll get a chance to prove their drive in the tournament's ceremonial opening match against Australia.
Papua New Guinea: The Kumuls bring a speed-laden attacking game to the pitch but need to shore up their defensive ranks if Papua New Guinea hopes to earn a semifinal berth, as it did in the 2000 RLWC by besting formidable group partners France, Tonga and South Africa. Arguably the underdogs in a solid pool of contenders.
Samoa: Toa Samoa had to slug it out with Lebanon in the Repechage final to earn the 10th and final spot in this year's RLWC. The squad has a wide range of talented players culled from the ranks of the NRL and English Super League who possess power, speed and disciplined play that could push them into the semifinal qualifying match.
Scotland: The Bravehearts will open their RLWC campaign against France and will have the Australian home crowd on their side thanks to the selection of wing Michael Robertson, one of the best players in the game, to cement the squad. Robertson, who has not missed a Rugby League match in more than two years, is a try-scoring game changer who can help lead the Bravehearts out of the pool and beyond.
Tonga: Mate Ma'a was the first team to qualify for the RLWC with their win over Samoa in the Pacific Cup in '06. In what is one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament, the two teams will meet in the group stage Oct. 31. With the loss of several key players leading up to the tournament, Tonga comes in on the back foot and will have to dig deep to rally against its pool opponents.
Look for few surprises from Group A, with the heavily favored Australia moving on along with England and New Zealand. Group B could stand for "Bottleneck" because this will be more of a dogfight, with much-improved France besting the rest to meet Group C winner Samoa in a semifinal-qualifier playoff.
The semifinals begin on Saturday, Nov. 15, when New Zealand (Pool 1 runner-up) and England (third-place finisher in Pool 1) will have to face off again, while Australia (Pool 1 winner) will take on France (semifinal-qualifier winner) on Sunday, Nov. 16.
The final takes place a week later, on Saturday, Nov. 22, at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Queensland, at 7 p.m. local time, when Australia and New Zealand lock horns for the championship. In a tight, hard-fought match, Australia will eventually prevail to win its seventh consecutive RLWC.
Peter Lion is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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