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Rugby League World Cup 2017 – 5 to watch out for

• Posted in Australia • By JoeBaker

There are few more sports obsessed countries on the planet than Australia. And if you were to compile a list of the activities that they love the most, rugby league would be very close to, if not on, the top. It is ideal then that country should be one of the joint hosts of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, which the ten-times winners and current holders kicked off in Melbourne with victory over England.

The last tournament four years ago was a dramatic affair, the highlights being New Zealand’s astonishing last-minute win against England in the semi-final and then the final itself, in which they were steam rolled by a rampant, Ben Slater inspired Australia. On the drama scale this latest instalment of the sport’s premier competition is likely to be no different.

So as fourteen teams take to thirteen different stadiums across Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, who are the main players to watch out for over the next five weeks of world-class rugby league action?

Michael Morgan – Australia

There is an argument to be made that any of the Australia side could make this list. In this case, we’ve plumped for Michael Morgan, the current holder of the number 6 jersey. He has only played in seven Tests for his country, with six coming from the bench, meaning that many are excited to finally get the chance to see him regularly play the full 80 minutes at the end of a season in which he has been one of the standout performers in the NRL as his North Queensland Cowboys side reached the Grand Final. Added intrigue has been created due to the pressure of him replacing one of Australia’s most important players, the injured Johnathan Thurston, yet with 53 tries already to his name in just 128 domestic matches, Morgan looks more than ready to step up to the plate. Explosive, clinical and versatile, expect him to be one of the leading lights for the Kangaroos.

Sam Burgess – England

At time of writing, England have already been dealt the blow of knowing that their wrecking-ball Sam Burgess could be out for 3-4 weeks, following a knee injury picked up against Australia. It says something for his level of ability and the impact he can have on a match that he still could end up being of the most influential players at this World Cup. Still slightly tarnished by his cross-code nightmare in the 2015 Rugby Union World Cup, the forward will be desperate to make amends back in the League format. He is England’s premier ball carrier, capable of smashing through any defence in a style akin to Billy Vunipola in Union, and has a physically that is vital for the sides defence and attack. If England are to go the distance and reach their first final since 1995, they need their main man to deliver. He may sound an obvious player to list, yet few have more to prove than the South Sydney man.

Theo Fages – France

A relatively inexperienced French face a real challenge at this World Cup getting out of a competitive group. Yet they will always believe they have a chance with Theo Fages in their side. The scrum-half should be well-known to England – he has been a key performer for St Helens throughout the 2017 season. The exciting Frenchman is always looking to snipe through defensive gaps and maintain a real pace in his sides forward forays. He is the one player they have who can really dictate a game, and will form a vital partnership with half-back William Barthau. The fact he has been made captain at just 23 shows how highly he is rated. Consistent, exciting and always playing on the edge, Fages could leave a huge impression on the tournament.

James Tedesco – Italy

Like Burgess, those in Australia will know a lot about James Tedasco, after the Italian excelled this season for both West Tigers and New South Wales, as well as having already having represented the Kangaroos. Yet for the next month he’ll be wearing the blue of the Azzurri, running from deep as their most potent attacking threat from full-back. He did well for the Italians at the last World Cup when operating as a centre, and is likely to be one of the most exciting players to watch this time round in his natural position and with more experience behind him. The man who is set to play next year for Sydney Roosters in the NFL was voted as the league’s player of the year last season, an award that the players themselves vote for. During this World Cup Australia’s loss could well be Italy’s gain.

Jason Taumalolo – Tonga

Many are citing Tonga as a team that will ruffle more than a few feathers during the tournament and Jason Taumalolo looks likely to be the man most capable of helping his team cause a major upset. Equally effective at either second-row or lock, the man who won the player of the year award last season for the NRL side the North Queensland Cowboys is a battering-ram with ball in hand and an immovable wall in defence. Despite being just 24 years old he is Tonga’s main leader on the field. If they are to make the latter stages of the competition it is pivotal for Tonga that Taumalolo is firing on all of his many cylinders.

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