The biggest event in Rugby League kicks off on Friday. Hosted by Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, it will see 14 teams — two groups of four, two groups of three — fight to claim the title of world champions. Reigning champions Australia will be desperate to retain the title in front of their home fans, but 2013 runners-up New Zealand will also be eager to impress their home support.
England will be looking to claim second place in their group behind the Kangaroos, but they will face tough opposition from France. Victory against Les Chanticleers is vital for England if they wish to secure group runners-up and a less arduous fixture in the last eight.
Other home nation teams, Wales and Ireland, face a harder test — they will play each other before taking on co-hosts Papua New Guinea. Only one of the three will progress to the quarterfinals, and Papua New Guinea are favourites to do so.
Scotland are pitted against the Kiwis, Samoa, and Tonga, and will be looking to repeat of their thrilling 2016 Four Nations draw against New Zealand. Samoa and Tonga are no pushovers, but the Bravehearts will be looking to justify their current world ranking of fourth and progress to the knockout stage.
It goes without saying that the Kangaroos are the odds on favourites. As the strongest team, as well as hosts, in theory, they should stroll through their group and towards the final.
The Aussie captain Cameron Smith, along with his fellow Queenslanders Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, are the Kangaroos’ key faction. Though Australia are without fantastic half-back Johnathan Thurston, their squad is not short of talent by any means.
New Zealand’s squad is much-changed, following Jason Taumalolo’s decision to defect to Tonga, and the dropping of cocaine-users Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor. However, Shaun Johnson, if on form, will be thrilling to watch; there is still an abundance of quality in David Kidwell’s team.
Wayne Bennett’s England side, having succumbed to semi-final heartbreak in their past three World Cups, will be looking to dispel their semi-final curse. However, they have been dealt a huge blow by the idiotic drug-related actions of Castleford’s Zak Hardaker who has consequently been left out of the squad.
Due to the injury-prone nature of Sam Tomkins, Bennett has opted for Saints’ Jonny Lomax and Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford to fill the void left by Hardaker. Skipper Sean O’Loughlin missed last year’s Four Nations, but he will be fired up and eager to lead his country to glory after a disappointing season with Wigan Warriors.
Fiji, like England, have also fallen in the last four recently, in 2008 and 2013. Expectations are high for the Bati, and key players Jayson Bukuya, Kevin Naiqama and Suliasi Vunivalu will be integral to Fiji’s chances of causing an upset.
Nations such as Tonga and Samoa are dark horses, yet their chances of reaching the final are slim if New Zealand and Australia are at their ruthless best. Nonetheless, do not write off the two Polynesian nations from giving one or two heavy-hitters a run for their money. Tonga could very well be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a rattled Kiwis side, especially with the recent acquisitions of Taumalolo and Aussie Andrew Fifita through the two-tier system.
Group A: 1. Australia 2. England 3. France 4. Lebanon
Group B: 1. Tonga 2. New Zealand 3. Scotland 4. Samoa
Group C: 1. Papua New Guinea 2. Ireland 3. Wales
Group D: 1. Fiji 2. Italy 3. United States
Valentine Holmes (AUS)