Sunday 25 February 2018 / 03:04 AM


Reflecting on the 2017 Rugby League World Cup

After a gritty, battering final, Australia have again been crowned the best rugby league team on the planet. Nothing, not even the most unpredictable World Cup in history, could prevent the Kangaroos from lifting the trophy.

The finale was more in line with a traditional Test match, with tempers flaring and big collisions frequent, attacking footy taking a backseat to physicality and toughness. Whilst it minimised the Kangaroos’ usually dominant attack, it allowed their stellar defensive mettle to shine. England were brave in bringing the fight and holding serve when the game plateaued into an arm-wrestle, but ultimately couldn’t find a way through the green-and-gold wall.

In a game so intense and tight, the fundamental characteristics of either side shone through: England, gritty but unable to find an offensive rhythm, the Kangaroos an impenetrable defensive juggernaut. Only conceding their tries for the entire tournament, their final average of just 2.6 opposition points per game will likely remain the record for the foreseeable future.

They were exceptional throughout their six fixtures, and whilst they only had three players named in our team of the tournament, if it wasn’t for Meninga’s rotations it would be hard to envision anyone besides Jason Taumalolo grabbing a spot over an Australian. The Kangaroos were heavily favoured to claim the title, and although they are the best team in the world, they were forced to earn a tough victory.

But just because the favourites went on to become champions, it doesn’t mean the competition was predictable

It couldn’t have been further from it, as we had the pleasure of indulging in a multitude of intriguing storylines: he emergence of Tonga as a legitimate powerhouse, the inspiring passion and pride of Fiji, the wild crowds in Papua New Guinea, the feistiness of minnows Lebanon and Ireland, and the struggles of usual contenders England and New Zealand to find consistency amongst the heightened competition. England navigating their way into the decider was among the biggest surprises of in itself, the Poms searching for fluency throughout the entire tournament.

It leaves the international rugby league landscape with a sense of optimism going forward, the growth and potential for further expansion on full display throughout the tournament. The competitive, tribalistic nature of the competition should become the new benchmark going forward, and continuing to grow the strength of developing nations — particularly the standout Pacific teams who continue to impress — should be at the forefront of priorities.

The structure of the competition might be the first element to come under review, especially as many voiced their displeasure with the uneven pool numbers and the strange circumstance that saw Samoa progress without notching a victory and Ireland heading home after the group stages with two wins. There’s also the concern of throwing the minnow nations against the far superior, NRL-laden sides that appears to do more harm than good in promoting and showcasing their talents.

The admirable performances of many underdogs — especially the gallant Lebanese team — sparks hope that they can continue to improve. If the talent continues to develop and cultures remain intact, Taumalolo-like defections could soon be the norm. Perhaps that should be the biggest takeaway: After the success of Mate Ma’a Tonga, NRL stars have to be encouraged to play for their heritage nations. Increased parity only stands to better the spectacle.

The first step appears obvious — the pay gap has to be removed for that to become a reality. It’s a fair argument that international payment should be removed altogether and the money spent on grassroots, a stance I would be 100 percent behind. The players will push back — and fair enough, it’s easy for me to say when no one’s taking my money — but it’s what’s best for the development of the game. The pull of participating in such an incredible event and representing their country should be enough to draw them in. Regardless, the days of the heavyweight nations far exceeding the income of the growing teams has to be over.

Overall, the 2017 World Cup will be remembered as a success, a showcase of the best the sport has to offer and a positive step forward for the international game. Unfortunately, that marks the end of an absorbing year of footy, capped fittingly with Cameron Smith lifting the Paul Barrière Tropy. Here’s to 2018!

Breakout performers

Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Jordan McLean: There are, aside from the regular superstar route, two typical paths to a representative jersey: there’s the players who rise up the ranks, serve their time building their resume as a consistent performer at club level (usually under the radar), gain notoriety on a good team and eventually earn their shot. Then there are players who are pinned to become elite early — sometimes over-hyped to begin with — but the clear potential they exhibit is enough to convince they will ascend to the level, and they’re thrown in to the mix. Once they are introduced to a higher level of footy, they rise to the occasion and never look back.

The Kangaroos’ bench props, McLean (former) and Campbell-Gillard (latter), are perhaps the two best examples of these paths. They were among the Aussies’ best, superb as a tandem through the middle third providing a great punch during their stints off the pine. RCG continues to wreak havoc as an explosive ball-carrier and metre-eater, whilst McLean is among the best ruck controllers in the game, whether finding his front and generating quick play-the-balls or slowing down the ruck-speed in defence. Breakout stars and shoe-ins for NSW Origin berths in 2018.

Akuila Uate: Uate, still as explosive and energetic as ever, carried over his resurgent Manly formly with his powerful, fearless charges that took us back to the peak ‘Akuila the Thriller’ days. What was most surprising was his comfort in defence: shifting into the centres had the potential to be a nightmare but Aku, a noted erratic defender across his entire career as a winger, took to his new position with surprising composure, enough to remain out of ‘liability’ and put in some of the best defensive work of his career.

Kevin Naiqama: Naiqama is far from a new name in rugby league circles, but when the dust settles, one of the enduring memories of the World Cup will be the touching displays of unabridged passion Naiqama provided each time he put on the jersey. An immediate fan-favourite, it’s impossible to deny his authenticity and emotion — and that isn’t to take away from his on-field performances, where he was a surprising standout at fullback for the Bati. Inspirational.

Gary Lo: Akilua Uate on steroids! An instant cult hero, Lo was a sight to behold when throwing his hulking frame full-pelt into defensive lines. Lo charging the ball back off a kick and pulverising attempted tackles backed by the cheers of the wild Port Moresby crowd ranks among the best images from the tournament.

Alex Walmsley: Exceptional off the bench for the Poms, carrying the go-forward whilst the offence often stagnated around him. Put his giant 6’5, 115kg frame to use, averaging over 100 metres each game.

Mark Kheirallah: Was France’s best from fullback, a constant lively presence around the ruck, and can claim one of the finest highlights of the tournament, splitting through the Australian defence off a kick-return for a 90-metre try.

The Tongan supporters: The undeniable stars of the tournament were the passionate fans who laid the canvas for some of the most remarkable scenes we had the pleasure of witnessing. Tonga’s performance on the field was matched, and possibly exceeded, by the passion in the stands. More football coming to these good people soon.

Abbas Miski: Josh Mansour’s long-lost brother wasn’t far off emulating the ‘Sauce’s’ powerful running game on the Cedars’ left flank, and parlayed his strong performance into a training camp contract at the Panthers. ‘Sauce Brothers’, anyone?

Alex Twal: Boasting a game similar to front-row partner Tim Mannah, Twal helped lay the platform for the gritty determination of the Cedars’ efforts with some fabulous workmanlike showings. Should put himself at the forefront of the discussion for one of the Tigers’ bench spots.

Suniasi Vunivalu: Confirmed he’s ready to rise to Radradra’s throne as the best finisher in the game, and just continues to be an all-round badass. Scored nine tries in the tournament, and now has 55 tries in just 52 NRL and Test matches.

Winners and Losers

Winner: Jason Taumalolo, chasing history
Jason Taumalolo has been the best forward in rugby league for three years. In 2017, he put forth his first submission for all-time status: a third consecutive top-fvie player season (but no Dally M positional award, I’ll never let it go), leading man on a contending team he downright carried to the grand final whilst evolving both his personal game and the position he plays. His World Cup campaign was already history-making before it had even begun. Taumalolo’s decision to play for Tonga over New Zealand altered the course of rugby league history and cemented his name in folklore as one of the most important figures in the game. He’s only 24, and can now begin taking names on the list of the code’s best-ever forwards. The sky is the limit.

Loser: Valentine Holmes’ fullback aspirations
Valentine Holmes is a fullback. He’s destined to become a star at that position. His current status is a high-level contributor at that position. He was far better than consensus opinion will have you believe whilst adjusting in his first full year. Despite the presence of Moylan and Dugan, he is the best fullback at his club. He played fullback for his country, and killed it, confirming again how good of a fullback he is. But Valentine Holmes is just too god-damn good at playing on the wing. He couldn’t help himself — 11 tries in two historic games refuelled the fire, and with two other capable custodians at the club, if he doesn’t set the world alight from day one, the evidence is stacked against him. WE HAD EVERYONE CONVINCED! YOU’RE A FULLBACK VAL!

Winner: Cameron Smith, inventor
We’ve called him the GOAT, a future Immortal and a timeless legend, so finding creative ways of describing Smith’s unassuming brilliance is getting harder and harder. But the older (and slower) he gets, the more we’re treated to his mastery of the minutiae. Smith took his game-control to a new level throughout the tournament, orchestrating the attack from acting-half unlike anything we’ve seen before. Add this to his resumé: he’s transcended positions, functioning through themajority of the games as what can only be described as a combination of hooker and half, or ‘dummy-half-back’ if you’ll indulge me. With Cooper Cronk’s exit expect him to transfer this new style to help pick up the duties in club-land. Somehow, he added another element to his game. It’s laughable how good this guy is.

Loser: Canberra Raiders
Any chance at a bounce-back year went out the window with Hodgson’s injury. Their hopes of a top-eight berth, let alone contenting for a title, are now looking grim with the creative rake set to miss at least half the season. A bitter blow for an irreplaceable star. The subpar performances of marquee forward Josh Papalii for Samoa were also concerning for the Green Machine.

Winner: Brad Fittler
Whatever hesitation the Blues’ decision-makers had in appointing Fittler was eradicated by his performance as the Lebanon head coach. Took the Cedars to the quarter-finals and came within two points of an upset, which parlayed into one of the best coaching gigs in rugby league. I’d call that a win for ‘Freddy’.

Loser: Centre Josh Dugan
Belief is fading. It isn’t that he isn’t a good centre, he has flashes: a jinking cut-back at the defence, a strong carry or a crushing hit that suggest he might even be better suited out wide. But it seems as that unless the ball is in Dugan’s hands, he has a hard time staying locked in. His defensive awareness is still non-existent, as is his passing game, but the framework is there for an elite three-quarter. Cronulla will have to commit early – and he’ll need a whole preseason to come around.

Winner: North Queensland Cowboys
Jason Taumalolo is the best non-Cameron Smith player in rugby league. Michael Morgan is a bona-fide star. New signing Jordan McLean is poised to break out, Matt Scott returning alongside him to join a forward pack already containing Ethan Lowe, Gavin Cooper and Coen Hess. Add that to the Johnathon Thurston farewell tour, and we have ourselves a contender.

Loser: New Zealand
Failing to reach the final would’ve been considered a disappointment pre-tournament, so falling short of the semis is worst-case scenario. Usurped from their position of No.2 in the world and caught between generations with a head coach that hasn’t flashed a slither of awareness of the situation at hand, the Kiwis have a long road ahead to regain their status as a rugby league powerhouse.

Stray Observations

• Tyson Frizell shouldn’t have been playing this tournament. There were flashes of his usual explosive self, but it’s clear he isn’t at 100 percent. After a season plagued by injuries, the rest would have served him well.

• To avoid negativity, I won’t name names, but some of the broadcasting team was pretty dreadful across the board. Constantly citing blatantly wrong facts — Daniel Tupou is 6’5, not 6’7, same as Alex Walsmley; Fusitu’a is 6’3 not 6’6; and Josh Dugan did not lead the NRL in running metres, just to name a few commons ones — along with a host of lazy analysis and strange opinions, made the huge difference between the stellar Fox coverage and the thrown-together efforts of Channel 7 stand out more than they’d want.

• The jury is still out on what the ideal lead-in for the knockout stage is. Lebanon and England clearly benefitted from seeing Australia early in the competition, whilst PNG looked out of their depth after powering through their group

• Vunivalu, Gagai and Kikau all rocked multi-coloured boots throughout the tournament, and I’m banking on this becoming the next boot trend, just as the fluoro boots appear to be losing steam…

• As with all international competitions, the common praise of standout players is that they could make it in the NRL. This was thrown at the likes of Jermaine McGillvary, Kallum Watkins and Gary Lo, but I have a hard time seeing any of them translating into the top league. For those who could, I’d point you towards Ashton Sims and Alex Walmsley.

• It’s shocking Cam Smith didn’t manage to kick a 40/20 for the entire tournament after so many attempts.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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