By STEVE MASCORDUNTIL last weekend, it seemed an abstract concept – a World Cup at the end of the year in England, Wales, Ireland and France.
Then came the Anzac Test in front of a sellout 25,628 crowd, with the Kiwis matching it with the Aussies for half a game before falling away.
But the real pipe-opener for the 14th World Cup, kicking off on October 26 and concluding on November 30, came at Centrebet Stadium on Saturday night when Tonga and Samoa did battle in front of 10,143.
“I thought the best game of the weekend was Tonga-Samoa,” said Newcastle and Country forward Willie Mason.
Mason himself, under RLIF rules, can play for New South Wales in this year’s Origin series and then switch to Tonga, with whom he played in the 2000 World Cup.
Any Origin players who have not already changed their country of election once since 2008 – as Akuila Uate has – can do likewise.
Potentially, there’ll be a flood of State of Origin players declaring their availability for other countries after Origin – while poor old Uate and Feleti Mateo will have to watch with the rest of us if they miss out on Australia.
Who can forget Kevin Campion and Luke Ricketson teaming up for Ireland in 2000, or now-video referee Justin Morgan playing against the green-and-golds in the World Cup semi-finals?
Just to whet the appetite a little more, we’ve gazed into the (at times very cloudy) crystal ball and attempted to come up with starting sides for each of the 14 nations taking part in our big carnival.
It wasn’t easy. Some countries, like Fiji, haven’t fielded a full-strength side since the last World Cup five years ago. Will Cowboy Clint Greenshields continue to play for France, where he spent six years playing for Super League club Catalan before returning to Australia this year? Is Tariq Sims tempted to join brother Ashton with the Bati? Is there a chance Steve Matai will have a change of heart and stick with New Zealand rather than joining Samoa?
A look at England’s line-up should set right those who see Steve McNamara’s men as pushovers, with the likes of Chris Heighington, Gareth Hock, Lee Mossop, Adrian Morley and George Burgess competing for bench spots.
Likewise, it would not surprise to see Gareth Widdop – a multi-million dollar recruit for St George Illawarra – miss out on a starting spot to captain Kevin Sinfield. But the Golden Boot winner is equally at home at no.13 and could play there to accommodate Widdop.
Either way, the hosts have plenty of options. We’ll know more when England take on The Exiles next month.
Because the World Cup ends a cycle, for eligibility purposes and only two teams involved had to play qualifiers, most NRL and Super League players can leave it until the 11th hour to choose their country.
We have grabbed the incumbent teams, cast around for those who were injured or unavailable at the time, and thrown in some long shots.
The lists should get you thinking about the relative strengths of the various teams. Outside the top three, Tonga look formidable.
Please note this is only a very early guide intended to throw up some debate. We do not claim to have the inside information over team. Thanks to Joanna Lester for her help.
Coach Tim Sheens says the men who played in Canberra have “one foot on the plane”
Cameron SMITH (c)
Coach: Tim SHEENS
THE Cooks played a thriller in Sydney last October against Lebanon and are quietly putting together a strong team for Europe
Coach: DAVID FAIRLEIGH
THERE’RE plenty of competitions for spots in the line-up for England, officially one of two host nations (alongside Wales)
Kevin SINFIELD (c)
NEWCASTLE assistant coach Rick Stone takes charge of a strong-looking Bati side. Will Tariq Sims switch after Origin?
Petero CIVONICEVA (c)
NEW coach Richard Agar can be expected to stamp his mark on the team that was heavily beaten in last year’s Autumn internationals.
Olivier ELIMA (c)
Coach: Richard AGAR
THE great Pat Richards will be a star for Ireland, who host Australia in Limerick.
Coach: Mark ASTON
THE Azurri look hot favourites to beat Wales at Millennium Stadium first-up but know they’re in for a tough group game against Tonga
Anthony MINICHIELLO (c)
Coach Stephen Kearney still has some pretty handy players to come back into his side, including Benji Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams and Simon Mannering
Simon MANNERING (c)
Sonny Bill WILLIAMS
Coach: Stephen KEARNEY
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
GOLD Coast speedster David Mead has decided to throw his lot in with the Kumuls again after a change of management
Paul AITON (c)
Coach: Adrian LAM
COACH Steve Price said he found out about “some individuals’ in the big loss two Saturdays ago. Expect changes
Kalifa FAIFAI LOA
Coach: Steve PRICE
JAMES McManus and Michael Robertston are expected to be on board again.
Coach: Steve McCORMACK
As if they weren’t already strong enough, the Mate Ma’a will be joined by players from State of Origin and Super League
Brent KITE (c)
Coach: Charlie TONGA
CLINT Newton, Junior Paulo and even Matt Petersen are in like for the Tomahawks’ World Cup debut
Apple POPE (c)
Coach: MATT ELLIOTT
DANIEL Mortimer has already been sounded out and more NRL and Super League players can be expected to join the Dragons before kick-off.
Jordan JAMES (c)
Coach: IESTYN HARRIS
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK