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RLWC Final: Australia eyeing top spot in rugby league rankings

RLWC 2022 betting tips

Australia can possibly regain its standing as the world’s number one rugby league nation in Sunday morning’s World Cup final at Old Trafford in Manchester and in the process further elevate Mal Meninga’s claims to being one of the greatest coaches in the game’s long history.

Standing in their way is the small Pacific island nation of Samoa, which has defied a 60-8 first-round hammering from host team England to make it to the sell-out final as heavy underdogs.

Meninga now finds himself in the rarefied atmosphere entering his 19th game as coach of the Kangaroos.

Manly great Bob Fulton stands alone with the most games with 67 wins, one draw and seven losses from 75 appearances between 1989 and 1998 for a career success rate of 89.33 per cent, which included three World Cups.

The late Don Furner, whom Fulton succeeded, holds the best winning percentage of 93.55 (for coaches with 15 games or more) with a career record of 29 wins and two losses from 31 games between 1986 and 1988.

Meninga, Australia’s 26th coach since Albert Johnston in 1946, took over the reins of the Roos in May 2016 when replacing Tim Sheens, who retired with a record of 26 wins and a draw from 31 games at 83.87 per cent.

At the time of writing the International Rugby League (IRL) was still crunching all the numbers as to whether an Australia win would be enough for the Roos to move back into the number of spot.

When the World Cup, delayed from 2021 because of COVID, kicked off last month, the international rankings had New Zealand (1), Tonga (2), England (3), Australia (4), Papua New Guinea (5), Fiji (6), Samoa (7), Serbia (8), France (9) and Malta (10) as the world’s top nations.

Those seedings though were clouded by COVID preventing some countries from participating in internationals for over two years, and because the convoluted rankings system — much like the world golfing rankings of years gone by — were sometimes not a true reflection.

Now, with New Zealand, England and Tonga all missing the final, the rankings are set to undergo changes.

Meninga has stuck with the same 19 players that took Australia into the final with a very hard-fought 16-14 semi-final victory over a gallant New Zealand.

Samoa has been forced to make a few changes, but the Pacific juggernauts have retained the nucleus of the side which turned around a horror 54-point first-round loss to England to beat them 27-26 in a golden-point thriller off the boot of hero Stephen Crichton.

One of the keys for Australia, apart from absorbing another battering in the middle, will be to try and unsettle Samoan playmaker Jarome Luai and put him off his game.

Luai has stepped up for Samoa big time in the World Cup and Australia needs to target him heavily and try and put him down every time he kicks.

Luai often responds to niggling tactics, especially knowing he can get away with more on the international stage than he would in an NRL game.

The battle up front will, as always, will dictate which set of halves gets more opportunities, with both countries boasting world-class combinations.

Nathan Cleary and Cameron Munster up against Luai and Anthony Milford is a top-shelf contest, but you would have to give the Australian pair the edge in this battle.

The Kangaroos will need to be mindful of Samoan centre Crichton’s match-winning intercepts and also the danger he poses with the boot if it comes down to a field-goal shootout.

Crichton makes a habit of breaking open big games, which he did with intercept tries in an NRL grand final and last weekend against England.

The clash of the fullbacks pitches up the old champion James Tedesco against Samoan young gun Joseph Suaalii, who wants his Sydney Roosters spot.

There’s no doubt Suaalii is a player of the future, but Australia’s captain has the runs on the board as far as Test appearances go.

And what about the battle of the wingers?

Brian To’o may not be as quick over the ground as flying Aussie Josh Addo-Carr (11 tries already in this tournament) but his power, strength and defence are amazing for a player once told he wasn’t big enough physically to play rugby league.

Both can be match-winners, as can Australian centre Valentine Holmes — a proven big-game player who loves to score a try.

All-in-all it has the makings of a blockbuster.

Australia is a very short-priced favourite — probably too short, because this Samoan side is loaded with power and punch and brings an unpredictability which must be highly respected.

Samoa’s ability to off-load and generate second-phase play will put Australia’s defence, the best in the World Cup by far, under a lot more pressure.

How the Aussies combat Samoa’s athleticism and shifts will be vital, just as it will be how the Samoans react to Cleary’s kicking game constantly turning them around.

Australia won’t be favourites with the massive Old Trafford crowd, who will be cheering the underdogs looking for the nation’s greatest sporting victory.

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