Rugby League World Cup: England ready for Australia opener in Melbourne

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From crunching hits to the Burgesses: Your World Cup guide
Rugby League World Cup 2017: Australia v England
Venue: Melbourne Rectangular Stadium Date: Friday, 27 October Time: 10:00 BST
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC Two (from 09:00 BST) and BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app; highlights on BBC Two at 23:50 BST

Wayne Bennett’s England will have arguably the toughest test of their World Cup credentials in Friday’s tournament opener against Australia.

The Kangaroos are the reigning champions from 2013, and have not been beaten in any Test match since a 26-12 loss to New Zealand in May 2015.

England, who won 74-12 in their warm-up against Affiliated States, have not beaten the Kangaroos since 1995.

Their last meeting with the joint-hosts was a 36-18 defeat in November 2016.

Victory for either side would make them favourites to top the group, which also includes Lebanon and France, and likely mean missing out on drawing New Zealand in the knockout phase.

History is against Bennett’s side, as England have only won two of 16 matches against Australia, whose last home defeat by northern hemisphere opposition came against Great Britain in 2006.

Skipper Sean O’Loughlin and St Helens hooker James Roby are the only survivors in the current squad of the Lions line-up that beat the Roos in Sydney during that year’s Tri-Nations.

Bennett patient about England progress

Much rests on the combination of Gareth Widdop (left) and Luke Gale (centre) in England’s halves, while John Bateman will play centre

Bennett’s remit on appointment as England head coach was to make the national team a force in time for the World Cup, and there is plenty of talent at his disposal in that quest.

There are seven National Rugby League-based players in his 17-man matchday squad, including prop James Graham, back-rowers Sam Burgess and Elliott Whitehead and Dally M 2017 half-back of the year Gareth Widdop.

Success could rest on Widdop’s combination with Super League Man of Steel Luke Gale, honed in last week’s warm-up and against New Zealand in last year’s Four Nations.

Winger Ryan Hall has been a scourge of Australia despite the winless run with six tries, and will continue his partnership with John Bateman, who has moved from his more regular back-row berth to play in the centres.

There is only one change to the starting line-up from the CAS victory with St Helens full-back Jonny Lomax replacing Stefan Ratchford, while prop Alex Walmsley makes his full debut off the bench.

“The World Cup is not won in game one of the tournament, we have just got to get better each week,” Bennett said in his pre-match conference.

“We won’t be at our best, and Australia won’t either so we’ll all build into it and that’s my plan. I want us to play well and do the things we have to do to be in with a chance of being there in six weeks’ time.”

No Thurston, but plenty of dangers

Johnathan Thurston (left) misses out but club and state teammate Michael Morgan will fill in at stand-off

Australia’s status as pre-tournament favourites has been well-earned, with head coach Mal Meninga taking the success he enjoyed as a player and Queensland State of Origin coach into the international coaching arena.

His side blew away all challengers to win the 2016 Four Nations, although one notable absentee from that group for the World Cup is star half-back Johnathan Thurston – who picked up a season-ending injury in the NRL finals series with North Queensland Cowboys.

The sight of his trademark scrum-cap will be a miss, as will his remarkable kicking game and skills to the Kangaroos game-plan, but Meninga is blessed with cover.

Combinations tried and tested in Queensland’s Origin campaigns provide the Kangaroos with a fearsome spine, such as Thurston’s half-back partner at club level Michael Morgan alongside Cooper Cronk in the halves, hooker Cameron Smith and full-back Billy Slater – the latter trio playing on home turf at Melbourne’s AAMI Park.

Manly lock Jake Trbojevic, former Wales international Tyson Frizell and Cronulla back-rower Wade Graham are among the new guard filling the void left by 2013 winners Sam Thaiday, Greg Bird and Paul Gallen who have finished their international careers.

“It’s an important game, like England we want to get away to a good start,” Meninga told BBC Sport.

“You’re always going to miss a player of Johnathan’s quality, not just his playing ability but as a person himself.

“Within the group he’s highly respected, but we’re ably suited with Morgan, James Maloney or Cameron Munster, we’ve got a wealth of talent vying for the number six jersey.”

Teams

England: Lomax; McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Whitehead, S. Burgess, O’Loughlin (c)

Interchanges: Walmsley, Heighington, T. Burgess, Roby

Australia: Slater; Gagai, Chambers, Dugan, Holmes; Morgan, Cronk; Woods, Smith (c), Klemmer, Cordner, Gillett, Trbojevic

Interchanges: Graham, McLean, McGuire, Frizell

You can follow the fortunes of your favourite team with live match notifications sent straight to your phone or tablet via the BBC Sport app. Line-up, kick-off, score, half-time and full-time options are available for all teams participating at the World Cup.

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