Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

IRRESISTIBLE FORCE: Jason Taumalolo's switch to Tonga has added interest to the rugby league World Cup, especially for the round-two clash with New Zealand. Picture: AAP
IRRESISTIBLE FORCE: Jason Taumalolo's switch to Tonga has added interest to the rugby league World Cup, especially for the round-two clash with New Zealand. Picture: AAP

A COLLEAGUE who shall remain nameless, and who regards a nice, muddy scrum as the pinnacle of sporting entertainment, made no attempt to hide his disdain: “I couldn’t be less interested in the rugby league World Cup.”

Spoken like a typical rah-rah, head stuck up his backside.

The game they allegedly play in heaven doesn’t seem to have much going for it these days, but one thing they take great pride in is their quadrennial tournament that culminates in the presentation of the Webb Ellis Cup.

For many years, it has been their sole claim to bragging rights over their mungo counterparts – rugby union has a meaningful World Cup.

In six weeks’ time, perhaps followers of the 13-man code will be able to argue they do, too.

For the first time, rugby league has a chance to prove that international competition is more than just a token gesture.

Previous World Cups have followed a predictable course, in which the only real interest is whether Australia’s opponents in the final can spring a monumental upset.

Maybe that will be the case this year as well.

But along the way, there should be some genuine contests, in particular those involving the Pacific Islands nations stacked with NRL-quality players.

The decision of players like Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita and Sio Siua Taukieaho to defect to Tonga has given the Mate Ma’a serious up-front muscle.

Throw in the likes of Michael Jennings, Will Hopoate, Daniel Tupou, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei, and the Tongans appear more than capable of reaching the competition decider.

New Zealand, while depleted by the absence of Taumalolo, Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris and Kieran Foran, have nonetheless assembled a formidable squad, and if enigmatic Shaun Johnson can produce anywhere near his best form, they still represent Australia’s greatest threat.

England will match any team in terms of sheer size and power, and getting their players to believe in themselves will perhaps be Wayne Bennett’s greatest coaching challenge.

Like Tonga, Samoa’s squad includes a host of players with NRL experience, while Fiji will field a strike force spearheaded by Jarryd Hayne, Suliasi Vunivalu and Akuila Uate.

Papua New Guinea are an emerging force, as evidenced by their grand final victory in this season’s Queensland Cup.

Even the lesser nations like Lebanon (Robbie Farah, Mitchell Moses and Tim Mannah) and Italy (James Tedesco, Paul Vaughan and Nathan Brown) will feature some household names.

There will no doubt be some cricket scores racked up, and I’ll be surprised if three of the last four teams standing aren’t Australia, New Zealand and England.

But really, is that so different from the rugby union World Cup?

If it was staged tomorrow, I’d be expecting the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and England to feature in the semi-finals. Maybe France or Ireland could stake a claim.

They’d all be playing, at best, to finish as runners-up to New Zealand, just as it seems every other team at the rugby league World Cup will need a minor miracle to deny Australia.

Above all, it should be a welcome change from the intensity of Origin, or the weekly grind of the NRL.

No doubt the players are looking forward to it, and so is this columnist.

Pearce a dilemma for Hodko

NEWCASTLE’S very public desire to recruit Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce hardly augurs well for Knights playmaker Trent Hodkinson.

Hodkinson has a year to run on his contract and is entitled to be wondering what role he will play in 2018.

Even if the Knights are unsuccessful in luring Pearce aboard, Hodkinson may well be struggling to shift Brock Lamb and Connor Watson as Newcastle’s No.1 scrumbase pairing.

You can guarantee the former Origin half will be quietly determined to prove a point – just as he did last year when he was reinstated after a stint in NSW Cup.  

Jets rue marquee hoodoo

HAS any A-League club had less luck with marquee signings than the Newcastle Jets?

The shocking injury to Ronny Vargas in Brisbane last weekend continued an apparently cursed run.

Newcastle’s first marquee man for ex-Socceroos skipper Ned Zelic, who was released after one season.

Mario Jardel, the Brazilian striker, was way over the hill. Italian midfielder Fabio Vignaroli and Socceroo star Jason Culina suffered serious knee injuries. Even Emile Heskey struggled with a knee problem in his second season, scoring only one goal.

Here’s hoping Vargas returns to show us his true class.