NRL.com's World Cup predictions
The World Cup pits rugby league's 14 strongest nations against each other, across four groups. Groups A and B are the stronger groups and consist of four teams each, with the top three teams from each group to advance to the quarter-finals. Groups C and D feature three teams each, with the two group winners advancing to the knockout stages. The eight quarter-finalists will then compete for a spot in the semi-finals and then ultimately the final in the early hours of Sunday, December 1 (Australian time).
With a week to go before the tournament begins, here is how we see each match playing out:
The Australians are Four Nations champions and clear World Cup favourites, but the pressure will be on after the disappointment of losing the 2008 Cup final to New Zealand. They've got stars all over the park and a veteran coach who has been planning for the tournament for a year.
Home ground advantage and a stellar forward pack are England's strengths at this tournament. Any pack featuring James Graham and three of the four Burgess brothers will be tough to handle, while star fullback Sam Tomkins and skipper Kevin Sinfield will provide much of their attacking spark. They've been rattled by a surprise 15-14 loss to Italy a week out from the start of the tournament, but that could turn out to be the wake-up call the squad needed.
Fiji aren't short of strike power in the outside backs, thanks to Knights duo Akuila Uate and Kevin Naiqama, Melbourne's Sisa Waqa, Wests Tigers speedster Marika Koroibete and the Panthers' Wes Naiqama. In the forwards they'll rely on skipper Petero Civoniceva and the Sims brothers to provide an impact. They appear to have the edge over Ireland for the final quarter-finals spot from this group, with the Irish led by Raiders prop Brett White and winger Pat Richards, who is on his way back to the Wests Tigers next season after winning the Super League with Wigan.
NRL.com's match predictions: Australia beat England; Fiij beat Ireland; England beat Ireland; Australia beat Fiji; England beat Fiji; Australia beat Ireland.
Predicted placings: Australia 1st; England 2nd; Fiji 3rd; Ireland 4th (Australia, England and Fiji advance).
World Cup champions New Zealand will be without Benji Marshall this time around but they do have Sonny Bill Williams and a great young halves pairing in Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson. They also boast five recent premiership winners from the Roosters and genuine depth in key positions, making them the clear favourite to win this group.
Papua New Guinea were beaten 50-10 recently by a Prime Minister's XIII side featuring a handful of Kangaroos stars, but will back themselves to compete with France and Samoa. Titans speedster David Mead will be a key for the Kumuls, along with Cowboys half Ray Thompson and former Panther and Shark Paul Aiton, while national great Adrian Lam will coach the side.
The French go into the tournament with a squad dominated by players from the Catalans Dragons, who finished seventh in the English Super League this season. Clint Greenshields brings NRL experience but versatile half Thomas Bosc is the team's star, while prop Remi Casty is NRL-bound after signing a two-year deal with the Roosters. France will need to bounce back from a shock warm-up loss to the USA and their opening clash with PNG will go a long way to deciding who advances from this group.
Samoa were thumped 36-4 by Tonga in Penrith in April but have a wealth of NRL experience, led by the likes of Ben Roberts, Mose Masoe, Mark Taufua, Daniel Vidot, Antonio Winterstein and star Raiders rookie Anthony Milford, who could be one of the breakout performers of the tournament.
Match predictions: Papua New Guinea beat France; New Zealand beat Samoa; New Zealand beat France; Samoa beat Papua New Guinea; New Zealand beat Papua New Guinea; Samoa beat France.
Predicted placings: New Zealand 1st; Samoa 2nd; Papua New Guinea 3rd; France 4th (New Zealand, Samoa and Papua New Guinea to advance).
GROUPS C & D
Groups C and D work a little differently: there are three teams in each group, and they each play against the other teams in their group plus one match against a team from the other group. So, Group C's Tonga will play against the other Group C teams Scotland and Italy, plus Group D's Cook Islands. Only one team from each group will advance.
Tonga will take plenty of confidence from their win over Samoa earlier this year and are the most likely team from Group C to go through, led by experienced campaigners Brent Kite, Sika Manu and Fuifui Moimoi in the forwards and explosive young talents Glen Fisi'iahi, Konrad Hurrell and Daniel Tupou in the backs.
The Italians boast several familiar faces for NRL followers in the form of Anthony and Mark Minichiello, Kade Snowden, Anthony Laffranchi, Aidan Guerra, Joel Riethmuller, James Tedesco and Paul Vaughan. Their forward pack looks strong and they made the perfect start to their campaign by stunning England by a point in their warm-up match. NRL regulars Peter Wallace, Luke Douglas and Kane Linnett will be the key men for Scotland, who are the outsiders of Group C.
In Group D, Wales will be led by experienced props Jordan James and Gil Dudson, with Dragons forward Tyson Frizzel the only NRL regular in the squad. Their home-grown talent should get them through to the quarter-finals.
The Cook Islands are the tournament's outsiders according to the world rankings but nevertheless boast their fair share of NRL experience, including Isaac John, Sam Mataora, Dylan Napa and Brad Takairangi. Coach David Fairleigh also knows plenty about competing at the highest level. The Americans can't be written off after their upset win over France in their warm-up match, and will be boosted by the experience of NRL regulars Joseph Paulo, Clint Newton and Eddy Pettybourne.
Tonga and Wales are the favourites, but these two groups are wide open.
Match predictions: Wales beat Italy; Tonga beat Scotland; USA beat Cook Islands; Wales beat USA; Italy beat Scotland; Tonga beat Cook Islands; Scotland beat USA; Wales beat Cook Islands; Tonga beat Italy.
Prediction placings (Group C): Tonga 1st; Italy 2nd; Scotland 3rd (Tonga to advance).
Prediction placings (Group D): Wales 1st; USA 2nd; Cook Islands 3rd (Wales to advance).
It's sudden death from here on in, so here's how we see the matches playing out.
QF1: Winner B (New Zealand) v Winner C (Tonga) – New Zealand to win
QF2: Winner A (Australia) v Winner D (Wales) – Australia to win
QF3: Runner-up A (England) v 3rd Place B (Papua New Guinea) – England to win
QF4: Runner-up B (Samoa) v 3rd Place A (Fiji) – Samoa to win
Winner QF1 (New Zealand) v Winner QF3 (England) – New Zealand to win (but don’t hold us to it...)
Winner QF2 (Australia) v Winner QF4 (Samoa) – Australia to win
So there you have it, we're predicting – surprise, surprise – an Australia v New Zealand World Cup Final.
But expect to see a few shocks along the way. Nations like Tonga, Fiji, Italy and Papua New Guinea all have the talent to advance to the semi-finals, while the likely semi-final match-up between New Zealand and England should be a classic.
And if England manages to beat Australia in the tournament opener, then the Kangaroos and Kiwis could be facing off in a blockbuster semi-final.
So how's it really going to turn out? Stay tuned to NRL.com over the coming weeks for all the news, previews, match reports and highlights from England and Wales.