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25-October 2013

Rugby League World Cup 2013:

The Kangaroos are hot favourites, inspired by the five survivors from the crushing defeat by New Zealand five years ago

New Zealand celebrate beating Australia and winning the Rugby League World Cup in Brisbane in 2008.

Australia begin the rugby league World Cup in a familiar position as hot favourites, yet for the first time since the 1977 tournament they will not be defending their title. If anything should eliminate complacency among the star-studded Australian squad, it is the vacant space on their trophy cabinet where the World Cup used to be.

It is five years since New Zealand stunned the Kangaroos 34-20 in the 2008 World Cup final in Brisbane, a result that, outside Australia at least, prompted heel-clicking joy. After Australia's six consecutive World Cup wins the trophy engraver finally had a new name to work into the silver.

Five years is a long time in sport, time enough for desire to wane, form to fade and belts to need loosening a notch or two, but Australia have five survivors from that final defeat and it is no coincidence they happen to be five of the best players of the modern era: Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Paul Gallen. With the next World Cup not until 2017, this tournament is surely their last chance to claim the international game's biggest prize.

Theoretically that could seem daunting, as is the prospect of facing a New Zealand team who have troubled Australia in recent years in either the semis or final, but these men are all big-game players, their reputations forged as much in the cauldron of State of Origin football as the NRL premiership. They are fallible, remember Slater's intercept pass in the 2008 final?, but they are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the occasion. They should also lift the team around them, one so rich in talent that two of the NRL's best players this year, the Manly half Daly Cherry-Evans and Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita, appear likely to be bench players.

This depth of talent in the modern era has separated Australia, on paper, and usually on the field, from their main rivals, New Zealand and England. While New Zealand and England can usually fashion a competitive, and sometimes formidable, first 13, Australia tend to have an embarrassment of riches. This means that any unfortunate injuries to key players in the pool matches, Australia and England are in Pool A with Ireland and Fiji, are unlikely to affect Australia as much as they might their rivals.

Cherry-Evans can step in at half-back, the Wests Tigers' Robbie Farah is a ready replacement for Smith and the squad member Jarryd Hayne, fast and as agile as the Frogger frog, could slip in seamlessly for the wingers Darius Boyd and Brett Morris and full-back Slater. Then there is Inglis, the world's best centre who may also be the world's best full-back, where he plays for South Sydney.

Australia's strength also lies in their combinations. It is all well and good having a fine list of players, but how well do they work together? The hooker Smith, half Cooper Cronk and full-back Slater are all part of the spine that has made the Melbourne Storm such a formidable team over the past eight years. Throw in Thurston at half-back and you have the 1, 6, 7 and 9 from the dominant Queensland State of Origin side of recent years. They know each other's games back to front and can finish each other's moves as Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker finished each other's sentences. Each has the talent to win games off their combined individual brilliance.

If there are any question marks around Australia, who should have little trouble progressing to the semi-finals, it could be their age and the hole-punching, yard-munching ability of the forwards. The majority of the first team's forwards, Gallen, Sam Thaiday, Greg Bird, Corey Parker and Matt Scott, are all either side of 30 and they do not have the size of a Burgess brother, Sonny Bill Williams or Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, men who can slowly wear out a defensive line. They will welcome the tough stuff, and in Gallen's and Birds's case, possibly instigate it, but are they physically prepared, particularly after the month-long lay-off since the end of the NRL season, for the strain of a tournament? The wisdom of Australia not scheduling a warm-up match looks questionable until one remembers England's defeat by Italy and France's defeat by the USA.

But should age or injury weary the Australian pack, or should they struggle to lay a good platform for their brilliant backline, waiting in the wings are young, heavy-calibre guns in Fifita, James Tamou, the premiership winning Rooster Boyd Cordner, and the fearsome, heavy-hitting Josh Papalii, who may be more fired up than usual after having been robbed outside a Manchester nightclub some days ago. All played State of Origin this year and acquitted themselves well under pressure, particularly Fifita, who was one of NSW's best. Depending on how Australia perform against England, there is a chance, if the coach, Tim Sheens, is brave enough to make the call, that some may usurp their elders by the time the semi-finals come along.

In a further, grasping, bid to find a weakness in the Australian team there have been suggestions that a fault line exists in the squad down state lines. Last year the NSW captain, Gallen, expressed his unhappiness when Queensland's Test players broke into the state's victory song following a Test win over New Zealand in Townsville. But, given the stakes in England, it seems inconceivable that any fatal rift will open up in the Australian side. "I've never seen a problem before," Sheens said before the team left, "and I don't anticipate one on this tour."

New Zealand showed in the 2008 World Cup final and the 2005 Tri-Nations final that Australia are beatable. England's best chance of discovering this for themselves may come in the tournament opener on Saturday in Cardiff, when Australia might be ring rusty and England's fans are full of song and filling the sails of their team.

But the joint hosts, like New Zealand, will need to be at their absolute best to have a hope of slaying the beast again. Australia are deserved favourites and they are motivated. There is a trophy missing from their cabinet and they want it back.

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