It is arguably the most mouthwatering semi-final in Rugby League World Cup history, and the coaches of Australia and New Zealand both believe they have the quality to book their place in next weekend’s final with victory at Elland Road on Friday night.
The two nations that have won the last nine World Cups do battle in Leeds, with a place in the final against England or Samoa, who meet on Saturday, on offer for the victor. It is rare for the sport’s two Antipodean heavyweights to meet in a semi-final but because Australia dropped to fourth in the official world rankings – largely due to their lack of desire to play international rugby league since the 2017 World Cup – only one of the Kangaroos or the Kiwis will make the final.
Just three of Australia’s new-look side have played in a World Cup semi-final before. That, coupled with a scratchy second-half performance against Lebanon last Friday, has left some wondering if there is a rare chink of vulnerability in the reigning world champions for the Kiwis to exploit. But Australia’s head coach, Mal Meninga, insists his side are ready for what will arguably be their first real test, having coasted through to the last four so far.
“It is a big game for Australia because it’s a World Cup,” Meninga said. “We haven’t been in this situation for a long time. It’s a special game, so there’s a natural progression in intensity and you want to get yourself up for it. Everyone is fully aware of the enormity of the challenge in front of us. It’s a big game for this squad.”
Australia have missed only one final in World Cup history; at the inaugural edition of the tournament in 1954. Meanwhile, New Zealand survived an almighty scare against Fiji in the quarter-finals last weekend to reach the last four, but Meninga believes that makes the Kiwis a much tougher threat than some expect.
“It probably knocked their motivations back in place around the tournament,” he said. “Without being disrespectful, it’s been a fairly easy ride for most of the top teams. That made them realise they need to knuckle down and get ready for this. They won’t need any motivation to go well. It’s going to be a fantastic game. But this is the first step. We want to play well tomorrow night and win. Then we want to move on and win the World Cup.”
New Zealand’s coach, Michael Maguire, echoed Meninga’s confidence in his own group of players though, as the Kiwis look to cause a shock and end Australia’s dominance in the World Cup. “We’ve got a really strong group and a lot of the players have played in real big games,” he said. “We were aware sometime ago that this game had to happen to get through to the final. We’re looking forward to it.”
The winners of Friday’s semi will face England or Samoa in the final at Old Trafford next Saturday. The hosts have made just one change to the team that thrashed Papua New Guinea with Canterbury’s Luke Thompson to replace the St Helens prop, Matty Lees, on the England bench for Saturday’s semi-final at the Emirates Stadium.
Samoa successfully overturned a one-match suspension for their captain, Junior Paulo, at a hearing earlier this week to free him to play in the match. They are expected to make minimal changes to their side as they look to avenge the 60-6 defeat in the opener at St James’ Park a month ago, and deny the hosts a place in the final for the first time on home soil since 1995.