After a weekend of record-breaking performances and off-field controversies, we give you our top tips as we preview the final round of group matches in the Rugby League World Cup.
It’s going to be a classic?
Fiji vs. Italy
Townsville was witness to a ruthless performance from the Pacific Islanders as they blitzed Wales by 72 points to six – a record tournament defeat on the Dragons.
Italy kept their slim hopes of qualification alive with an equally emphatic 46-0 victory over the United States (USA). Their man of the moment James Tedesco, voted the best player in the Australian NRL last year by his peers, was accountable for two of their eight unanswered tries.
Fiji are blessed with overwhelming physicality and should have more than enough firepower to overcome the Italians who are in desperate need of an upset, if they are to give themselves the prospect of clinching a maiden quarter-final berth at just their second World Cup.
The campaign of Cameron Ciraldo’s troops has been blighted with off-field dramas following their shock opening loss to Ireland in Cairns. Fiji have produced two solid defensive efforts in their two matches so far, so expect the 2013 semi-finalists to rack up another impressive scoreline.
New Zealand vs. Tonga
One unblemished record has to be tainted in this tasty encounter. Both sides go into this clash already assured of a place in the knockout stages, but top spot in Group B remains very much in the balance.
Shaun Johnson made history for the Kiwis in their rout of Scotland as he became his country’s record points scorer. Tonga are an exciting team and there will be no love lost at the Waikato Stadium with Jason Taumalolo (arguably the best outside centre in the world), opting to play for Tonga rather than the co-hosts. I have a sneaky suspicion this could be Tonga’s time – they can be backed at 23/10 to emerge victorious here.
Samoa vs Scotland
Despite the embarrassing revelation of their captain Danny Brough and two of his team-mates being sent home for being too drunk to catch a flight from New Zealand to Brisbane, Scotland still have a genuine 50/50 chance of reaching the knockout stages. The Bravehearts have been on the receiving end of two harsh World Cup lessons so far and must oust Samoa in Cairns on Sunday to progress.
Like the Scots, Samoa have so far failed to muster a solitary point. They failed to make it three wins on the spin against their Pacific neighbour Tonga in what has been pigeon-holed one of the most electrifying atmospheres at a league match in New Zealand this century.
However, the consequences of losing three key players will weigh heavily on Steve McCormack’s men. Even though there is so much at stake, I can’t see anything but a comfortable Samoa win.
Australia vs. Lebanon
The ten-time winners and reigning champions have sauntered through to the last eight, scoring 70 points and conceding just 10 in the process. Quite simply, they are light years ahead of the rest of the field and head coach Mal Meninga has an abundance of riches at his disposal. Wade Graham starred for the Kangaroos in Canberra on Friday night, scoring four tries as the hosts demolished France.
Lebanon have already had a tournament to remember with their gutsy approach earning them a superb win in their opening against Les Chanticleers, but they will undoubtedly need some assistance from their most recent conquerors England, if they are to avoid an early exit.
Australia to have a winning margin of between 31 to 40 points is generously priced at 10/3 with Ladbrokes. Before chasing any bets be sure to check out this list of the top 5 regulated bookmakers in Australia.
Papa New Guinea vs. USA
The co-hosts will be hopeful of a big win here against one of the competition’s whipping boys. PNG have conceded just one try in each of their two encounters to date and their mobility will wreak havoc on the USA who lack in defensive solidarity and unity.
The Hawks may have been a revelation at the last World Cup, but I can’t see any hope for them at the Oil Search National Stadium in what is likely to be another sell-out.
A stake on PNG at 5/4 to win to nil could prove to be lucrative.
Wales vs. Ireland
Ireland have the edge over Wales in both experience and ability, but this is essentially a dead rubber given the Wolfhounds need more than the “luck of the Irish” if they are to prolong their stay at this year’s event.
Wales are still yet to win a World Cup game since 2000 and the pressure is largely off the eliminated Dragons. I’m still expecting a fiery and passionate contest between these two, but Ireland are best equipped to get over the line here.
England vs. France
England overcame a potential banana skin in Sydney last Saturday against Lebanon to follow-up their positive display in the opening game of the World Cup against the defending champions. Ranked third in the world and possessing a formidable attack with the likes of George Williams and Gareth Widdop, Wayne Bennett’s men look a strong bet to go far in this competition.
The French need a minor miracle if they are to progress and they have struggled, although their ‘cup-final’ against Lebanon could have gone either way.
England will have too much in the tank and Bennett has already announced four changes to his squad for Sunday’s match. They are notoriously fast starters, so odds of 15/8 for there to be more tries in the first-half of this encounter should bear fruit.