Sport Rugby League Pacific minnows to challenge rugby league’s elite at the World Cup

Pacific minnows to challenge rugby league’s elite at the World Cup

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Pundits are predicting a three-way battle for the Rugby League World Cup between defending champions New Zealand, Australia and co-hosts England.

But five Pacific island nations plan to dent the pride of the sport’s elite and perhaps even cause a major upset in the 14-team tournament.

Papua New Guinea will look to its three NRL players – captain Neville Costigan, Ray Thompson and David Mead – to drive its campaign.

The Kumuls reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2000, and their high performance director Mal Meninga wants another final eight finish.

“They’re a great bunch of young people who understand the expectations of this country. They understand that they need to play to their potential to be successful,” Meninga told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat earlier this month.

“We’ve got a tough pool… So we think we have a realistic chance of at least winning one or two of those games, and if we do that we’ll advance into the quarter finals.

PNG take on France in their opening game on Sunday.

Their bigger tests in Group B will come against New Zealand and Samoa.

The Samoans suffered a major blow on the eve of the tournament when skipper captain Roy Asotasi withdrew.

But their squad boasts some of the game’s most exciting young stars including Newcastle Knights utility Joseph Leilua and Canberra Raiders’ rookie Anthony Milford.

With 11 NRL regulars, and fearsome forwards like Brent Kite, Tonga is also hoping to reach the quarter-finals.

The Mate Ma’a face Cook Islands, Scotland and Italy in the group phase.

Fiji has a tough draw against Group A giants Australia and England, but a win in their opening match against Ireland should put them on course for the final eight.

Veteran Kangaroo prop Petero Civoniceva, who was born in Suva, returns to captain the Fijians.

Cook Islands don’t have the household names of other Pacific teams, but with group matches against the United States, Wales and Tonga a quarter-final berth is not beyond them.

Pacific islanders have for many seasons played a starring role in the world’s biggest club competitions such as the NRL.

The next month will give them a chance to shine in their national jerseys.