SYDNEY (Reuters) - Captain Cameron Smith’s perfect year is likely to end with Australia’s 11th rugby league World Cup title on Saturday with his side virtually unbackable favourites for the final against England.
Smith won the State of Origin series with Queensland and the National Rugby League title with the Melbourne Storm this year along with Kangaroos team mates Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, in what could potentially be their last game together after a decade of success at club and representative level.
He was also awarded the Golden Boot as rugby league’s best player in the world earlier this week and victory over Wayne Bennett’s England at Lang Park on Saturday (0800 GMT) would cap a phenomenal year for the 34-year-old.
“This year things aligned quite well for me and I enjoyed the season thoroughly,” he told the National Rugby League website (www.nrl.com) after being awarded the Golden Boot.
“That is an important component in why I have been able to play some pretty good football throughout the entire year.”
Smith’s side have also played some ‘pretty good football’, starting with an 18-4 win over England in the opening pool game and then racking up 186 points in their four following matches while only conceding 12.
Australia winger Valentine Holmes has been the beneficiary of his side’s punishing form, scoring five tries against Samoa in the quarter-final before he ran in six against Fiji in the semi-final. Both were World Cup records.
The world champions are also relatively settled, with prop Aaron Woods the only concern as he will need a pain-killing injection for a long-standing shoulder injury.
England, however, have already lost hooker Josh Hodgson with a torn knee ligament while captain Sean O‘Loughlin was named at lock but is struggling with a shoulder injury and likely to be a last-minute decision on his availability.
History is also counting against England.
The last time a team from the Home Nations won the title was in 1972 as the Britain side, with England only making two previous finals in 1975 and 1995.
They have also lost their last 12 matches against the Kangaroos and were considered lucky to make Saturday’s decider after Tonga stormed back from a 20-point deficit in the last eight minutes to get to 20-18 and then had a try controversially disallowed in their semi-final.
The match in front of fanatical Tongan fans in Auckland, however, highlighted the depth of talent amongst players of Pacific Island heritage, which could now produce the legacy officials have long craved for the sport as it battles credibility issues and struggles to expand its footprint.
The Tongans were boosted by several National Rugby League first team regulars, including Jason Taumalolo, who snubbed New Zealand, and Andrew Fifita, who withdrew from the Australian squad, and are likely to stay aligned with the island nation.
Fiji made their third successive semi-final, while they are on the brink of establishing a permanent team in the second-tier New South Wales Cup with former Kangaroos prop Petero Civoniceva leading the push for a professional side in the islands.
Both developments will be closely watched by the existing powerhouses ahead of the next tournament in England in 2021.
Writing by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by John O'Brien