International View: Final Cup spot up for grabs
As we hit week three of rugby league’s international season, International View takes a quick snapshot of all the activity happening around the globe.
England stick with winning formula
England coach Steve McNamara was happy enough with the performance of his team in Avignon last week against France, leaving it intact for their opening Four Nations clash against Wales in Leigh.
England: Sam Tomkins (Wigan), Ryan Hall (Leeds), Jack Reed (Brisbane – NRL), Kirk Yeaman (Hull), Tom Briscoe (Hull), Kevin Sinfield (Leeds), Rangi Chase (Castleford), Jamie Peacock (Leeds – c), James Roby (St Helens), James Graham (St Helens), Gareth Ellis (Wests Tigers – NRL), Ben Westwood (Warrington), Chris Heighington (Wests Tigers – NRL). Interchange: Gareth Widdop (Melbourne – NRL), Adrian Morley (Warrington), Jamie Jones-Buchanan (Leeds), Jon Wilkin (St Helens).
European showdown in Belgrade
While attention will focus on the United Kingdom this weekend with the official kick-off to the 2011 Gillette Four Nations series, the most important international will take place over in Belgrade in Serbia where the Italian Azzurri take on the Lebanon Cedars for the final spot in the 2013 World Cup.
With both teams dominating the qualifiers so far, racking up well over 120 points each, Saturday’s fixture clearly is an unknown quantity, with neither side truly tested to date.
Italy boast a significant NRL advantage, with four first grade regulars (Anthony Minichiello, Joel Riethmuller, Cameron Ciraldo and Vic Mauro) to take the field, versus the Lebanese who despite having no full-time professionals have a far more experienced side. Several players featured in the Cedars’ 2008 World Cup Qualifying campaign, including forwards Chris Saab and Charlie Farah.
History is also on Lebanon’s side after they claimed a 36-16 win in the only other full international between the two nations back in 1999, which saw the Cedars qualify for the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
The winner of Saturday’s match will join Scotland and Tonga in Group C of the World Cup.
Playing for bragging rights
It may not be as important as the Italy-Lebanon clash, and there won’t be any World Cup spots up for grabs, but as part of the double-header in Belgrade on Saturday, Serbia will take on Russia in their final respective match of the European Qualifiers.
With both nations deciding to opt for home-grown talent rather than bolstering their sides significantly with heritage players, Saturday’s clash will be a good test to see how both nations’ grassroots programs are faring.
Despite the two nations having met just twice in the past, both share a common history, with both leagues suffering from mass government intervention that crippled a lot of the hard work each had done.
For Serbia, after first flirting with the game back in 1953 through the work of Yugoslavian Sport Association secretary, Dragan Marsicevic, the code took off, establishing strong support in the region. Unfortunately this strong growth over the first decade was completely undone when the Yugoslav government decided that there could only be one code of rugby within its borders, forcing all league teams to covert to union in 1964. Rugby league finally made its return to Serbia in 2001.
On the other hand Russia have suffered more from government intervention more recently when union sevens was made a priority sport by the Russian Olympic Committee in 2009. To help fast-track results, the three top clubs – Kazan Arrows, Dinamo Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow – were lured across with financial incentives, whilst the Russian Ministry of Sports expelled the rugby league from the State Register of Sports of Russia on January 20, 2010.
Despite this setback, league is still played in Russia, and is taking massive steps since its return in Serbia. As for who will win on Saturday? The tip would be Russia, who still have a stronger league to draw upon than the Serbians… but there won’t be much in it.
Pride in the jersey
There is no doubt that on paper Wales is clearly the weakest of the Four Nations teams, but one thing is for sure: you can’t doubt the passion they have to represent their country.
While players from the three other nations have pretty much had all their expenses paid for by their relevant national bodies, including airfares for everyone travelling from outside the UK, the Welsh representatives from abroad have paid out of their own pockets to ensure they are at the tournament.
Also, the semi-professionals in the squad have taken time off work to ensure that they can dedicate everything to help the Welsh Dragons make an impact in this year’s tournament.
French eye first win of season
Bobbie Goulding will be hoping that playing at the Catalan Dragons home ground, Stade Gilbert Brutus, will deliver the French their first win of the 2011 international season.
After losses to both the English development and senior teams, Les Chanticleers are desperate to finally secure a victory when they take on Scotland Bravehearts this Saturday.
Goulding plans to stick with a similar team to that which took on England last week in Avignon, featuring 15 Catalan players.
Scotland are also expected to name a relatively similar side to the one that defeated Ireland in Glasgow.
American dream finally realised
Last Sunday at Campbell’s Field, New Jersey, history was made for rugby league with the realisation of a dream that started back in the 1950s.
As the Tomahawks ran away in the final quarter of the match to hand Jamaica a convincing defeat, the dream of pioneers of the code in North America, including the likes of Mike Dimitro, Mike Mayer and more recently David Niu, was achieved as the United States qualified for its first ever Rugby League World Cup.
While there have been many attempts to attempt to kick-start the sport in America – including the well-noted ‘All Stars’ side that toured Australia back in 1953, the attempt to host a World Cup in 1960 and the ‘fourth’ State of Origin match at Long Beach California in 1987 – the most successful has definitely been the work of former St George Dragons player David Niu, who established a grassroots competition in the New England area back in 1998 that still runs today.
Niu’s bold efforts, plus those of many others across the country, have contributed to this historic achievement, which will finally see the USA play in the pinnacle of our sport internationally.
Europe admits four more
Rugby league’s European influence continues to grow, the Czech Republic, Germany and Norway all being promoted to Affiliate members of the Rugby League European Federation overnight, after significant growth in their domestic structures over the past 12 months.
Denmark has also joined the fold, being given observer membership status for the first time since inception.
The biggest movers of the four has been Norway who now boast a 12-team senior competition, and coverage of the code on both satellite and terrestrial television after just two years since taking up the sport.
This week’s fixtures:
Gillette Four Nations
28th October: Australian Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis – Warrington, England
29th October: England v Wales Dragons – Leigh, England
European World Cup Qualifiers
29th October: Serbia White Eagles v Russia Bears – Belgrade, Serbia
29th October: Italian Azzurri v Lebanon Cedars – Belgrade, Serbia
29th October: France Chanticleers v Scotland Bravehearts – Perpignan, France
Last week’s results
Atlantic World Cup Qualifiers:
23rd October: USA Tomahawks 40 defeated Jamaica 4 – Philadelphia, USA
European World Cup Qualifiers
22nd October: Russia Bears 0 lost to Lebanon Cedars 32 – Moscow, Russia
23rd October: Serbia White Eagles 6 lost to Italian Azzurri 52 – Belgrade, Serbia
21st October: France Chanticleers 18 lost to England 32 – Avignon, France
22nd October: Wales Dragons 30 defeated Ireland Wolfhounds 6 – Neath, Wales
22nd October: Cumbria 12 lost to England Knights 26 – Whitehaven, England