This year’s Rugby League World Cup has come with its fair share of controversy, which is sure to produce one of the most emotional competitions to this date.

Australia go in as overwhelming favourites to retain their crown but the battle for second place is hotter than ever with a host of NRL talent spread out across the competing teams.

The defection of both Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo to Tonga from their respective nations has put the island nation in a real position of power and some say the likely challenger to the Kangaroos’ throne.

Across the ditch the Kiwi’s will have a somewhat new look team with various stars either aligning themselves with other countries or old stars like Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Isaac Luke being left out of the squad.

Then of course there is the England conundrum: Can the super coach, Wayne Bennett, take the Lions to their first ever World Cup win after a disappointing end to their Four Nations campaign just over a year ago?

With that, we here at the South Sydney Rabbitohs, have created our own RLWC 2017 tournament preview running the rule over the key players, big match-ups and our very own crazy predictions ahead of Friday’s blockbuster opener.

The Rivalries

Defection Redemption

New Zealand vs Tonga

Details: Saturday 28 October, 3pm, Mt Smart Stadium

Who to Watch: Jason Taumalolo (TON), Adam Blair (NZ)

The final clash of group B will arguably be one of the fieriest clashes of the competition as New Zealand host Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium. Obviously the main story of this match is the defection of 2016 Daly M medallist Jason Taumalolo from New Zealand to Tonga causing outcry across the Rugby League world.

The move has been mainly criticised with New Zealand captain Adam Blair leading with the most stinging comments referring to North Queensland Cowboys’ backrower as “not being man enough” after his “shattering” allegiance switch. 

Prediction: Form is temporary but class is permanent, New Zealand will outrun Tonga using their experience to battle past the competition dark horses.

The Old Enemies

Australia vs England

Details: Friday 27 October, 8pm, Melbourne Rectangular Stadium

Who to Watch: Aaron Woods (AUS), James Graham (ENG)

The opening game of the season sees host Australia battle it out against the old enemy in England in what could be a dress rehearsal for the Grand Final.

Despite being outright favourites to win this year’s World Cup on their own soil, Australia hasn’t had the smoothest of preparations, with key players including the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Darius Boyd all out injured, whilst also copping their own defection controversy after Sharks’ forward Andrew Fifita also opted to represent Tonga.

On the other side of the paddock England will look to finally show they mean business, and after falling short of another NRL Provan and Summons trophy Wayne Bennett will no doubt want to add to his list of achievements. 

Prediction: Australia to win but unconvincingly as a stubborn England outfit pushes them all the way. 

Sink or Swim

Samoa vs Scotland

Details: Saturday 11 November, 5pm, Barlow Park, Cairns

Who to Watch: Zane Musgrove (SAM), Luke Douglas (SCO)

In every international tournament there is always one side that is involuntarily hard done by. This year its Scotland’s job to play that role.Drawn in with New Zealand, Samoa and Tonga Scotland became the competition gag after copping a thrashing from NSW Country under 23’s.

However, with three teams being able to progress from Group B Scotland will eye off one of those qualifications spots and against the Samoa they will have their best chance to gain points. Samoa on the other hand will see this as a must win game if they want to avoid falling to embarrassing early exit.

(Outrageous) Prediction: Draw! Scotland to repeat their heroics against New Zealand in last year’s Four Nations and earn a valuable point. 

Firing Under Farah

England vs Lebanon

Details: Saturday 4 November, 8pm, Sydney Football Stadium

Who to Watch: Gareth Widdop (ENG), Robbie Farah (LEB)

One of the most intriguing clashes of the World Cup will be between competition heavyweights England and ever green Rugby League nation Lebanon.

At first glance this fixture may seem like a one way traffic match but Lebanon boast a team of NRL talent in key positions, whilst also being under the enigmatic leadership of Brad Fitler. Robbie Farah has shown immense passion for Lebanon in the lead up to the RLWC and his role as Captain will surely bring out the best of him.

A game that could decide the outcome of Group A it would be foolish to underestimate this Lebanese side that is often associated as the fairy tale team of international Rugby League.

Prediction: Lebanon to win with Mitchel Moses shining under the tutelage of Brad Fitler. 

Group D(eath)

Italy vs USA

Details: Sunday 5 November, 4pm, Townsville Stadium

Who to Watch: Bureta Faraimo (USA), James Tedesco (ITA)

The term cellar dwellers comes to mind with this clash as Italy and USA face of in Townsville. Fiji is the likely winner from group D but this match will determine who will be their challenger to their progression, plus with NSW state of origin Fullback James Tedesco in the squad, Italy will boast a real strike weapon against lower ranked teams

Prediction: James Tedesco to score a hat trick as Italy romp to victory.

 

Rabbitohs Radar

The Burgess Brothers: Both Sam and Tom Burgess have been selected to lead England from the front and will both play a huge part in carrying them forward. Look for Wayne Bennett to give Sam freedom to run riot against the majority of teams, which should produce a strong highlight reel come the end of the tournament. While Tom will look to build on a strong end to the 2017 season.

Dane Gagai: Your new bunny Dane Gagai will be making his international debut this year for Australia as Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga rewards the versatile back after a positive 2017 season at both a domestic and representative level.

Zane Musgrove: Hard man Zane Musgrove will be plying his trade for Samoa at the World Cup and will look to play a big part in side that has a real shot of going deep into the tournament despite a tricky opening group.

Robbie Farah and Adam Doueihi: Both Farah and Doueihi will represent the an underrated Lebanon team this year, which will have NRL quality, Mitchel Moses, Tim Mannah and Michael Lichaa in the squad

Shane Richardson, Leigh Richardson & Dave Furner: At this particular World Cup your South Sydney Rabbitohs will have its very own office battle with Shane Richardson (GM) and Leigh Richardson (Football Analysist) playing parts in New Zealand’s World Cup campaign while Dave Furner will act as the assistant coach for Tonga.