The 15th Rugby League World Cup launches in Melbourne on Friday night, with the Kangaroos short-priced favourites to retain the title they won so emphatically in 2013.
Starting with the Australia-England showdown at AAMI Park, the home side’s irresistible blend of experience and dynamic young talent is expected to help it coast into the final in Brisbane on December 2 after a month of games around the nation.
New Zealand has been rocked by suspensions, injuries and defections, while fellow heavyweight England has won just one Test against the Kangaroos or Kiwis on foreign soil in the past 25 years, intensifying Australia’s standing as world champions-in-waiting.
Few have a better grasp of the World Cup’s magic than Tim Brasher, Australia’s fullback in the 1992 and 1995 finals at Wembley and one of just six players in the past 40 years to feature in two successful campaigns.
“When you’re a kid you watch the Olympics and all those world sporting events – the World Cup is the pinnacle,” Brasher told The New Daily.
“You can play in a Test series, but the World Cup is once every four years and something that means you’re the best in the world.”
Since taking over as national coach last year, 1992 World Cup captain Mal Meninga has been lauded for reinvigorating passion for the green-and-gold jersey after three straight losses to the Kiwis in 2014-15, and Brasher believes his guidance is vital.
“The history of the team and the badge you’re wearing is paramount. It’s a big job to win this World Cup,” he said.
“To do that, you’ve got to have team spirit, camaraderie and love for that jersey. They [Australia] have got the team to do it.”
But Brasher is expecting stiff competition from archrivals New Zealand and England.
“They’ve always had outstanding players, but now they’ve got the resources and every NRL team has a bunch of Kiwis and English players, so it’s not a foregone conclusion anymore – the Aussies have to play well,” he said.
The shock defection of superstar forward Jason Taumalolo to Tonga was yet another blow in the Kiwis’ string of pre-tournament calamities, including bans for captain Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor for off-field indiscretions, and injuries to Kieran Foran and Tohu Harris.
But New Zealand has won four of its past seven tournament finals against Australia – including the 2008 World Cup final boilover at Suncorp Stadium – and those obstacles could galvanise the team.
“(The setbacks) have given them a reason,” Brasher added.
Tonga has dominated pre-tournament discussion after snaring Taumalolo and original Kangaroos selection Andrew Fifita, and Brasher also expects the island nation to make some waves over the next five weeks.
Fiji and Samoa boast similarly strong squads, while Brad Fittler-coached Lebanon is looking to oust France for a historic quarter-final appearance, while Papua New Guinea looms as semi-final smokies on the strength of playing its group matches in Port Moresby.