Will the Kangaroos reclaim the crown as the best team in the world?
Australia will be gunning for revenge when they clash with defending champions and trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand in the Rugby League World Cup final at Old Trafford on Saturday.
The Kiwis won the last World Cup in 2008 with a shock 34-20 victory in Brisbane over the Kangaroos, who have dominated the 13-man code having won nine previous editions.
New Zealand are defending Four Nations champions after also beating Australia in Brisbane. But those two victories are the Kiwis’ sole successes in five years of competition between the Anzac rivals.
Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney was more than happy to accept that the Kangaroos, who have not conceded a single try in their four matches since their opening 28-20 pool win over England, were favourites.
“We do start as underdogs, but the lads are confident that, if they can bring their best performance on Saturday, we give ourselves a great opportunity,” he said.
There are only three players who appeared in the 2008 final: captain Simon Mannering, hooker Issac Luke, and veteran winger Manu Vatuvei, the latter named by Kearney in his initial 19-man squad but still an injury doubt.
The Kiwi squad, however, can call on undoubtedly the player of the tournament so far, Shaun Johnson, who has filled a half-back spot left vacant by the union-bound Benji Marshall, and also media darling Sonny Bill Williams.
Williams was this week crowned international player of the season, quite a feat for the second-rower after a five-year spell away from league winning 19 All Blacks caps and a union World Cup, and also becoming New Zealand’s professional heavyweight boxing champion.
Should he be on the winning side on Saturday, Williams would become the first player to win the World Cup in both rugby codes.
“I’d give every award back in a heartbeat just to get across the line this weekend,” insisted the Sydney Roosters star, while his talent has obviously not gone unnoticed by Australia.
Kanagaroos coach Tim Sheens acknowledged that Williams was “a special player” and someone whose media draw was nothing but beneficial for the code.
“He certainly had an influence in the England game and almost most games he plays in,” Sheens said.
“It’s good for our game and for our code around the world because he’s known over here and I think he’s well known as a rugby player in France too, so it’s been good for the code over here and playing in this tournament.
“I love the game as a game and love to see it played around the world and well respected so players like that are great to have around.”
Sheens is hoping star full-back Billy Slater will be fit for Saturday after aggravating a knee injury in the quarter-final win over the United States, with Greg Inglis a more than adequate deputy should he not.
There was disappointment in the Kiwi camp, however, when second-rower Frank Pritchard missed the cut because of a hamstring injury.
“He’d love to play, and we’d love to have him there, but the stakes are as high as they get this weekend and he’s not 100 percent,” said Kearney.
Kearney named three wingers in his pre-match squad of 19, which will be trimmed to 17 just before the 1430 GMT kick-off at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium.
Veteran Jason Nightingale has been joined by Vatuvei and the tournament’s highest try-scorer Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who both had injury concerns this week.
The 13 previous winners of the Rugby League World Cup ahead of the final of the 2013 tournament between New Zealand and Australia at Old Trafford on Saturday:
1954: Great Britain
1957: Australia (league format)
1960: Great Britain (league format)
1972: Great Britain (league format)
1975: Australia (league format)
2008: New Zealand
Paths of New Zealand and Australia to the final of the Rugby League World Cup on Old Trafford on Saturday:
Semi-final, beat England 20-18
Quarter-final, beat Scotland 40-4
Pool, beat Samoa 42-24, France 48-0, Papua New Guinea 56-10
Semi-final, beat Fiji 64-0
Quarter-final, beat United States 62-0
Pool, beat England 28-20, Fiji 34-2, Ireland 50-0