World Cup: Five (new) things we've learnt
1. The Roos aren't set in stone
The immediate question is whether a Boyd Cordner or Josh Papalii will come in as a straight swap for the injured Luke Lewis, with the green-and-golds' request to be afforded a replacement player denied. But competition for backline spots is even fiercer – you can lock in Billy Slater for fullback and Greg Inglis at centre in a best-17 scenario, but will Darius Boyd, Brent Tate and Brett Morris be able to hold off strong challenges? Michael Jennings in particular is banging on the door for a centre spot but Josh Morris and Jarryd Hayne were strong against Fiji and would not let anyone down in a World Cup final. And will Daly Cherry-Evans be able to force Robbie Farah out of the side in their battle for the bench utility role? It could all come down to team balance. Stay tuned.
2. We've all underestimated the Tomahawks
An almost shambolic preparation, with late coaching reshuffles and almost no time training together, a complete lack of higher representative experience or even much top-line rugby league experience, for a team appearing at its first World Cup? It's hard to see them winning a game, we all thought. Well, someone forgot to tell the Tomahawks because, led by outstanding performances from NRL regulars Joe Paulo and Clint Newtown, not to mention some home-grown talent, USA sits well atop Group D with two wins from two starts (both The Cook Islands and Wales are winless) and are guaranteed a quarter final face-off against the might of Australia. You might have to postpone those flights home, boys!
3. There is still a gulf at the top
With whitewashes for Australia over Fiji (34-2), New Zealand over France (48-0) and England over Ireland (38-0), normal service was somewhat resumed following an opening week of unexpected – but decidedly welcome – close encounters. There is still no doubt that this is the most competitive Rugby League World Cup we've seen, as the performances of teams like the USA, Italy and Scotland have shown. That said, it will be a massive shock if the final isn't fought between two out of Australia, New Zealand and England.
4. Conditions will play a key role
You need to look no further than the freezing and saturated clash between Australia and Fiji to see how much of a challenge the conditions will pose when they turn sour. In that match, Fiji's most potent weapon – a scintillating back three of Akuila Uate, Kevin Naiqama and Marika Koroibete – were virtually taken out of the game as conditions dictated a middle-of-the-park grind. It also drastically reduced the involvement of Australian wingers Hayne and Boyd; but on the flipside, experienced playmakers and precision kickers like Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk will become even more vital in exploiting those conditions and controlling the play – as Thurston showed in that match. Kickers like England's Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield and New Zealand's Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson will have their work cut out matching it with the Aussies in those situations.
5. Meninga's touch not so magic
The record-breaking Origin coach and PNG coaching director felt the need to pen a personal apology to the people of Papua New Guinea after a heartbreaking one-point loss to France. There's been no follow-up so far after the shellacking the Kumuls received at the hands of a fired-up Samoa side brimming with NRL talent but one thing is clear – 'man management skills' won't get you over the line when you take away the kind of roster he's used to dealing with in his time guiding the Maroons to eight series wins in a row. Papua New Guinea are arguably the most rugby league-mad nation on earth and they would have been hoping for a lot more than a straight sets exit from their national side.