Roundtable: Can Australia be stopped?
With Wayne Bennett coaching England, New Zealand losing key players to Tonga and the smaller nations at the Rugby League World Cup boosted by big names like James Tedesco and Jarryd Hayne, there has been less focus than usual on tournament favourites Australia.
Just how strong is Mal Meninga's Kangaroos squad, and is any other nation capable of stopping them in the competition – starting with Friday night's clash with England? That's the topic of this week's NRL.com roundtable.
Dom (Dominic Brock, NRL.com production editor): When Australia won last year's Four Nations Final their line-up included four Kangaroos veterans who won't be there at the World Cup – Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Matt Scott and Darius Boyd. As strong as the team is, those are some big losses, correct?
CK (Chris Kennedy, national correspondent): Correct. I would humbly suggest Thurston is easily the biggest loss there. Boyd was "only" playing wing, and there are a ton of great props ready to fill Scott's very large shoes. Maybe GI with his versatility and a lack of genuine strike centres to replace him will hurt a fair bit too though.
Gabz (Martin Gabor, national correspondent): We're talking about two potential Immortals. That's always going to hurt.
Alicia (Alicia Newton, national correspondent): Australia's depth is ridiculous, but experience and complacency among the younger players might be the issue.
Gabz: I'm sure they'll do fine, but even Darren Lockyer struggled in his early days as a Kangaroo.
Tony (Tony Webeck, chief Queensland correspondent): The mere fact that we have to discuss who plays where in this Kangaroos team shows that it doesn't possess the fear factor of more recent times for opposition teams. Lot of these guys are yet to prove themselves at this level.
Gabz: That's it. A lot of the guys coming in are in great form, but Jordan McLean, Cam Munster, Wade Graham and a few of the outside backs haven't been tested at this level.
CK: Which also ties into my point about Thurston. Maloney, Morgan and Munster are all a chance of partnering Cronk. Morgan is probably the best choice in terms of recent form but he's also the best bench utility in the squad.
Gabz: Yeah I think it'll be hard to move Morgan from that utility role given how well he's performed off the bench. That said, he's shown plenty to suggest he deserves a crack at 6.
Dom: I believe Mal Meninga has said Morgan's got the edge for the first game. He'd be my pick for five-eighth, with a lot of guys versatile enough to cope with the lack of a genuine super-sub utility.
Gabz: The way Munster played in Origin shows he's more than ready to link up with his Storm teammates in the spine. I can't see James Maloney getting a run on Friday. His experience and goal-kicking help, but I think the other two are in front of him in the pecking order.
CK: Personally I'd start Morgan and either run Munster as the bench utility or let guys like Wade Graham absorb it. Tough on Maloney, who certainly won't be in the 17 if he doesn't start in the halves.
Tony: They're also missing the likes of Gallen and Parker in the forward pack. England can do the rest of the World Cup a big favour by rattling them a bit on Friday night.
Gabz: Who starts at lock? McGuire or Klemmer?
Dom: McGuire, after Klemmer killed it as a bench player in Origin.
Gabz: Yeah and Jake T has also shown he is a great impact player off the bench in rep teams.
CK: I think with Klemmer and McGuire and RCG you have the aggro and the bulk, and with guys like Cordner, Gillett, Trbojevic, Woods etc you have the experience and the class. They should be fine.
Personally I've got Jake Trbojevic starting at 13... don't really expect it to happen but reckon he's ready.
Alicia: I'm predicting player of the tournament for Jake T so he's my starting lock. McGuire to front row.
Dom: Turning to the backs, Tony wrote a story last week in which Broncos legend Steve Renouf pointed out Australia had a lack of depth in genuine centres, and before Darius Boyd was replaced by Josh Mansour the Kangaroos squad actually had zero full-time NRL wingers. Could that lack of specialists in the outside backs come back to bite them? Or is it just par for the course now in Aussie rep sides?
CK: I think it could bite them and is also par for the course. Origin and Test teams have been loaded with fullbacks in recent years. I'm a bit curious what the right edge looks like. Does Dugan hold the centre spot? Does Mansour jump straight into Boyd's starting wing role after not being in the initial squad? How to you fit Tommy Turbo in because surely he has to play...
Gabz: I'm not convinced he'll get a start. I'd have Mansour and Holmes on the wings with Chambers and Gagai playing centre. And that's being tough on Tom T.
Alicia: Well Tommy was good in the Fiji warm up but Mal wasn't convinced. The fact you're asking him to play in a position he hasn't at NRL level is a big ask on the international stage.
Dom: He's played a bit on the wing and centre for Manly but not this season and not at rep level like the other contenders have.
Tony: I reckon Wayne Bennett will be having a very close look at Josh Dugan and whoever ends up playing outside him.
Gabz: Dane Gagai was player of the series in Origin, was he not? Will Chambers is arguably the best centre in the game. Val Holmes has looked at ease in the green and gold jersey.
CK: So are we mostly all in agreement Dugan wouldn't be in a best 17, with potentially Chambers and Gagai the centres?
Gabz: He certainly lifts when he plays for Australia, but I've got others ahead of him this time around.
Dom: I feel like Gagai will stay on the wing after his Origin heroics.
Tony: I'm with Dom, I reckon Dugan is almost a certainty to play centre.
Alicia: Gagai will only play wing for mine. Mal is a big Dugan fan. I can see it being Chambers/Dugan against England.
CK: Suspect Alicia's prediction is on the money.
Tony: But again, it reinforces the point that Australia's best team is not immediately obvious.
Dom: Any other possible weaknesses you can see that rival teams could take advantage of?
Tony: The shame is that the only real Test the Kangaroos will have in the pool stages is this Friday and they will have two games against lower opposition to give the newbies a shot of confidence before finals time.
Alicia: As mentioned the old heads like Gallen, Parker and Thaiday are gone in the forward pack. That's the only part of the game I can see them potentially being matched.
Dom: OK speaking of their opponents then, what would need to go right for other teams to be a chance of beating them? Can England spring a surprise on Friday?
Tony: I think they can. They've got a strong set of forwards, Luke Gale and Gareth Widdop are coming off outstanding seasons and they've got strike out wide. They need to believe but they can definitely cause an upset.
Gabz: The bookies have given England ($5.75) a 16-point start. That's fairly hefty for a tournament opener. I'm not sure it'll be a high-scoring blowout, but Australia will get the job done.
CK: England have a good team. Good pack, good backs, good playmakers. Whether the class and experience across the board will be enough against the Kangaroos in their own backyard is another story but if they match it in the middle and start fast and take their chances they're a shot.
Gabz: I think England need to chance their arm a bit. Looking back at the Four Nations, there was a game where they kept taking penalty goals (I think it was against NZ). That won't get it done on Friday.
Alicia: You look at the side on paper and they've got the strike power + NRL experience. Coached by arguably one of the best ever. They looked good in warm-up game. Agree with Gabz they'll need to mix things up and play a bit more expansive, but opening game of the tournament I suspect it will be closer than those big odds. (Gamble responsibly.)
Dom: OK so anyone want to take a stab at naming Australia's 17?
Gabz: I reckon they might pick Smith.
CK: 1 Slater 2 Mansour 3 Chambers 4 Dugan 5 Holmes 6 Maloney 7 Cronk 8 Woods 9 Smith 10 Klemmer 11 Cordner 12 Gillett 13 McGuire 14 Morgan 15 Graham 16 McLean 17 Trbojevic
Tony: Slater, Holmes, Chambers, Dugan, Gagai, Morgan, Cronk, Woods, Smith, Klemmer, Cordner, Gillett, McGuire. Hunt, Graham, Frizell, Campbell-Gillard.
Gabz: Slater, Holmes, Chambers, Dugan, Gagai, Munster, Cronk, Woods, Smith, Klemmer, Cordner, Gillett, McGuire. Morgan, J Trbojevic, Frizell and RCG
Alicia: 1. Slater 2. T. Trbojevic 3. Chambers 4. Dugan 5. Gagai 6. Morgan 7. Cronk 8. Woods 9. Smith 10. McGuire 11. Cordner 12. Gillett 13. Jake T 14. Hunt 15. Graham 16. Klemmer 17. RCG
Gagai ahead of Holmes just based off Origin series alone.
Dom: As moderator, I think I vote for Tony's team, but we'll find out on Friday. Thanks guys.