BRISBANE, Australia: England have a chance to win a first-ever rugby league World Cup on Saturday — even if their renowned Australian coach Wayne Bennett doesn’t rate their chances of upsetting Australia in Brisbane.
The Kangaroos are aiming to lift the World Cup for an 11th time and have won their last 12 encounters against England dating back to 1995, including an 18-4 win in the opening match of this year’s tournament.
England, under the veteran Brisbane Broncos mentor, struggled into their first final since 1995 on the back of a controversial 20-18 semi-final win over Tonga, while the Kangaroos skated past Fiji 54-6.
Asked if they were playing well enough to win the final against the Kangaroos, Bennett said in typical deadpan fashion: “Probably not. But we’ll still go to the game.”
Kangaroos back-rower Matt Gillett, who has played the last three years under Bennett at the Broncos, is taking little heed.
“I’m sure everyone realises that he doesn’t mean it,” Gillett said this week.
“In house they will be fully confident of taking the win. He’s been around a long time and knows footy pretty well — he says those things and makes a headline of it.”
The Kangaroos have made an irresistible case for favouritism in the Suncorp Stadium final.
The home side have totted up 204 points, including 35 tries, conceding just 16 points and three tries. Winger Valentine Holmes has crossed for an extraordinary 11 tries in his two matches.
Kangaroos skipper and hooker Cameron Smith goes into the final as the winner of his second Golden Boot award after being judged the world’s best player this year.
He will team up with his two long-time Melbourne Storm accomplices, Billy Slater and Sydney Roosters-bound Cooper Cronk, to run the Kangaroos attacking plays.
England’s star forward Sam Burgess will also get his chance to be a World Cup winner after his ill-fated switch to rugby union when England failed to get out of the pool stages while hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Burgess returned to Australia’s National Rugby League where he is a superstar with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and now has the chance of redemption as England take on Australia in the 13-a-side final.
Apart from Burgess, England will be looking to their two other NRL-based stars, fullback Gareth Widdop and prop James Graham, for inspiration.
England suffered a setback when Canberra Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the semi-final win over Tonga.
He will be replaced by James Roby, while captain Sean O’Loughlin is battling to shake off a quad injury to lead his country in the showpiece event.
Australia – Billy Slater; Dane Gagai, Will Chambers, Josh Dugan, Valentine Holmes; Michael Morgan, Cooper Cronk; Aaron Woods, Cameron Smith (capt), David Klemmer; Boyd Cordner, Matt Gillett; Josh McGuire.
Interchange: Wade Graham, Jordan McLean, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tyson Frizell.
England – Gareth Widdop; Jermaine McGillvary, Kallum Watkins, John Bateman, Ryan Hall; Kevin Brown, Luke Gale; Chris Hill, James Roby, James Graham; Sam Burgess, Elliott Whitehead; Sean O’Loughlin (capt).
Interchange: Alex Walmsley, Tom Burgess, Ben Currie, Chris Heighington.
Referee: Gerard Sutton (AUS)-AFP