The draw has been announced for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, which will take place from October 27-December in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
The pools for the 14-nation tournament are as follows:
Pool A: Australia, England, France, Lebanon (top two progress)
As they were in 2013, heavyweights Australia and England have been grouped together – and will progress to the knockout phase, barring a major catastrophe against France or Lebanon.
Pool B: New Zealand, Scotland, Tonga, Samoa (top two progress)
The Kiwis have their work cut out with clashes against rapidly-improving Pacific archrivals Samoa and Tonga. A quarter-final surprise packet in 2013, Scotland will start their campaign as rank outsiders to progress beyond the group stage again next year.
Pool C: PNG, EQ1, EQ2 (top team progresses)
Papua New Guinea have the advantage of playing all three of their pool matches – against the top two European qualifiers, and their cross-pool showdown with USA – in Port Moresby, a difficult assignment for any visiting side.
Pool D: Fiji, USA, EQ3 (top team progresses)
The USA Tomahawks’ charge to the quarters last time around was the fairytale story of the tournament, but they have a tough task on their hands ousting Fiji – semi-finalists in 2008 and ’13 – for top spot in the pool.
The European qualifiers take place in October-November this year, with 2013 World Cup nations Wales, Ireland and Italy vying for the three available spots with Russia, Serbia and Spain.
The draw, naturally, is geared towards the co-hosts and the world’s best two teams, Australia and New Zealand, meeting in the final. But England could upset the applecart with a pool win over the Kangaroos or a semi-final defeat of the Kiwis to reach their first World Cup final since 1995.
If a third straight trans-Tasman World Cup decider materialises, the green-and-golds will have some demons to exorcise after losing the 2008 World Cup final, the 2010 Four Nations final, the 2014 Four Nations pool match and the 2015 Anzac Test to the Kiwis at Suncorp.
There’s been some big winners and surprising losers in the bidding for World Cup games.
Brisbane ousted Auckland for the final, with the decider and one semi-final to be played at Suncorp Stadium, though no pool games are set down for the city. Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium will host the other semi, along with the Kiwis’ opening pool game against Samoa, with rugby union stronghold Eden Park overlooked.
Melbourne will host the Australia-England blockbuster and a likely quarter-final between England and the Kumuls, but Sydney’s apathy for rep football has resulted in the city being granted just two pool games – both involving Lebanon. Allianz Stadium is the venue for the minnows’ clashes with England and Australia.
Christchurch will host its first international matches since the 2006 Tri-Nations, with the New Zealand-Scotland pool game and a quarter-final – likely to be between Samoa/Tonga and Fiji – to be staged in the South Island city.
Central North Island city Hamilton will see two hotly anticipated Pool B matches: the Samoa-Tonga blockbuster and the Kiwis’ clash with Tonga.
Wellington, the venue of the 2014 Four Nations final, will get just one game: the Kiwis’ likely quarter-final against France.
New Zealand centres to miss out entirely include 2014 Four Nations venues Whanagarei and Dunedin, and tourist hotspot Rotorua, which has hosted Kiwis Tests against Australia (1989), Great Britain (1996) and Papua New Guinea (2010).
Darwin is the surprise choice for the first quarter-final, which should see Australia square off against either Samoa, Tonga or Scotland.
Townsville, Cairns, Perth and Canberra all receive two games to host, with the Australia-France fixture to be played in the capital.
For further details of the draw, visit NRL.com.