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2017 RLWC – How Did Your Nation Fare?

Who would’ve thought that one Josh Dugan ankle-tap could be the difference between World Cup glory and despair? It was certainly a final of epic magnitude, two sets of gladiators fighting it out until the bitter end; blood, sweat and ultimate tears for the men in White.

Overall though, the Suncorp showdown brought to an end a mesmerising five weeks of rugby league excellence. A tournament which highlighted the Tongan national team as a new powerhouse of the International scene, raised controversial debates over group stage progress (I’m looking at you Samoa), and showed the best and worst that rugby league as a sport has to offer.

But after the dust has settled, how well did your nation do? Was it a World Cup to remember, rightly or wrongly, or will it fail to live long in the memory of your adoring National team fanatics. Take a look at how we have graded all 14 sides in this year’s league extravaganza.

Nation Ratings

Wales

All in all, John Kear’s side will probably not look back on their Australian adventure with any great fondness. In truth, nobody really expected the Welsh to turn up and claim any great scalps, and so it proved.

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The writing was on the wall as soon as they were drawn alongside Papua New Guinea and Ireland in the group stages, but the Dragons unfortunately looked to have regressed in the last four years.

The loss of big forward Tyson Frizzell, who opted to align himself with the Australians, was a huge blow, and ultimately the Welsh never really had anyone in their ranks who had the skill and creative guile to cause opposition sides a problem.

With just three tries scored over the whole tournament and a points difference of -138 over three games, it looks like Kear has his work cut out trying to pick up his relatively young group of players and turning them into anything other than the whipping boys of the international scene.

Grade- E

Ireland

It is astounding to think that Ireland finished the last World Cup rooted to the foot of Group A after big losses to England, Australia and Fiji.

Fast forward to the latest edition of the competition, and there must surely be an overwhelming feeling of pride and jubilance mixed with a huge slice of frustration and dejectedness.

The Wolfhounds showed everyone watching that they were not just going to the tournament to make up the numbers; comfortable wins over Wales and Italy set up a winner-takes-all showdown with PNG in front of a ferocious Port Moresby crowd.

Their ability to run The Kumuls right up to the end just shows how impressive a job Mark Aston has done, taking a side of experienced Super League players for various clubs, and turning them into one of the most collective units of the whole event.

It is just unfortunate that, despite finishing with two wins out of three and coming second in group C, Ireland were eliminated at the expense of Samoa, a side who failed to register a win and scraped a draw against Scotland in the last game of their group.

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It is a case of what if for the Irish, with progression to the quarter finals a real issue for World Cup organisers to address in the coming months. Despite this, the Irish can take huge pride from what has been a tournament of real promise and improvement from the Irish.

When the tournament heads to England in 2021, Ireland will be hoping to have what it takes to make it to the elusive quarter final stage.

Grade- C+

Papua New Guinea

If one team could symbolise how sport can bring a whole country together, it is the PNG national team.

Cheered on game after game by their adoring Port Moresby faithful, The Kumuls showed that they were the real in the latest edition of the competition.

Their flamboyant attacking displays and steeliness in defence earned them many plaudits from coaches and fans alike, and their margin of defeat, as they were eliminated 36-6 by England at the quarter final stage, was perhaps a little harsh given how much of a scare they gave Wayne Bennett’s side, in the first half at least.

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Their star players have certainly caught the eye of clubs across the world, with wingers Kato Ottio and Garry Lo securing moves to Super League sides Widnes Vikings and Castleford Tigers respectively.

The progression of the PNG Hunters in the Intrust Super Cup has surely played a part in their national team’s success, and the next few years could be pivotal for The Kumuls, in terms of building the platform for sustained international success.

When Great Britain next head Down Under for their revamped tour of the Southern Hemisphere, a warm-up match in front of a packed Port Moresby Stadium must surely be a dead cert, come 2019.

Grade- B

Italy

Compared to the 2013 World Cup, the Azzurri have had a relatively more dramatic World Cup experience. Whether it be big wins over the likes of USA, or team-mates brawling in Cairns bars, the Italians certainly experienced it all.

Cameron Ciraldo’s side who picked up just the one win during their 2017 journey, boasted the likes of NRL superstar, James Tedesco, as well as experienced heads such as Terry Campese and captain Mark Minichello.

Despite this, there seem to be a spark missing from the Italians, who never really looked like being the victors in their matches against Fiji and Ireland.

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Their whole tournament was overshadowed by an alleged altercation between Tedesco and team-mate Shannon Wakeman in the early hours, something which Italy’s officials were quick to sweep under the carpet.

It is hard to know where Ciraldo’s men go from here- they have some flair players, but unless they can come together as a collective unit, the Azzurri won’t be troubling anyone other than their group stage opponents anytime soon.

The end of this campaign- for a whole host of reasons- can’t have come soon enough for Italy.

Grade- D-

USA Hawks

It seems like an eternity since Brian McDermott’s USA side finished top of group D at the 2013 World Cup, following victories over the Cook Islands and Wales.

The side which progressed to the last eight in England, albeit suffering a 62-0 loss at the hand of Australia, seems a distant memory.

This time around, it looked like the Hawks just didn’t have the depth or the talent needed to overcome Italy, Fiji or PNG.

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Two defeats to nil will surely leave a sour taste in the mouths of anyone associated with United States Rugby League, and they looked a complete shell of the side which proved to be the surprise package this time four years ago.

North America have won the rights to host the 2025 edition of the World Cup and, admittedly, rugby league development is still in its infancy over in the US.

American officials will be hoping that foundations can be put in place over the coming years to ensure that the team fielded for the US’s first home Rugby World Cup will be far more competitive than this year’s offering, and hopefully the shambles of this year’s performance will be forgotten as quickly as possible.

Grade- E

Fiji

Despite falling at the semi-final stage to a Valentine Holmes-inspired Australia team, the Fijian’s can be proud of a tournament which allowed them to cement themselves as one of the powerhouses of Rugby League.

Although they got to the semi-final stage of the last tournament, the reinvigorated presence of the Tongans left rugby fans all over the world thinking that the final four of the competition was all but sealed.

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But the Fijians had other ideas, coming off the back of three emphatic wins to top their group. They went into their clash against 2008 champions New Zealand full of confidence, and the manner in which they restricted the Kiwis to just one penalty goal was nothing short of remarkable.

Mick Potter’s men can reflect on a tournament full of positives; try-scoring flair, steel in defence and a team full of top-quality sportsmen. Fiji Bati will be hoping that, come 2021, they are able to fight for a place in the final.

Grade- B+

Scotland

Like the Italians, the Scots were creating headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Going to a World Cup and representing your country should be the pinnacle of any players career, yet Danny Brough, Johnny Walker and Sam Brooks thought it acceptable to drink so much that they were unable to board a flight for their last group game.

The three were subsequently sent home and have since apologised, yet their irresponsible antics did nothing to help what was already a far from satisfactory tournament for Steve McCormack’s players.

Crushing defeats at the hands of Tonga and New Zealand were perhaps to be expected, but the way they let a second-half lead slip against Samoa, knowing that victory would secure them a dream tie against Australia, will leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Scotland’s squad was missing a lot of the players who helped them top their group back in 2013, yet the ending of this edition of the competition will leave McCormack wondering where his side goes next.

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The one real leader in the side, Brough, will surely have played his last World Cup match, throwing his final opportunity away in such idiotic style.

Now the Bravehearts must regroup quickly and decide how best to move forward with their young group of players if they do not want another campaign of disappointment and regret in four years’ time.

Grade- D-

Tonga

The real revelation of the competition, Kristian Woolf’s side will be able to return back to their clubs knowing that they have been part of a Tongan revolution.

And yet, if not for a last-ditch Elliot Whitehead tackle in the last play of their semi-final, we might have had a Tonga versus Australia showdown at Suncorp.

Their clash against the English was without doubt the game of the tournament; the atmosphere was the best at a rugby match for many years, the attacking displays from both teams was admirable, and the passion shown by both groups of players really highlighted why rugby league is the greatest sport on Earth.

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People really started to take note when they defeated New Zealand 28-22 in the group stages, topping their pool in the process.

Tonga played with passion and desire throughout the tournament, and they must now build on their success.

Spearheaded by Sika Manu, Jason Taumalolo and co, they have shown that they are no longer there to make up the numbers.

Make no mistake about it, come 2021, the Tongans will be wanting to take home the trophy.

Grade- A-

Samoa

Matt Parish’s men will surely look back on their performances with mixed emotions.

Firstly, their ability to come back from what seemed like oblivion in their game against Scotland, securing their place against Australia in the semi-final, really epitomises the passion and commitment to the cause by Toa Samoa.

Their desire to win has not wavered since 2013, when they performed admirably against the likes of New Zealand and Fiji, yet it looks like this group of players isn’t capable of making it beyond the quarter-final stages.

They have players like Tim Lafai and Ben Roberts who possess a lot of skilfulness. However, these kinds of players will shrink into the background when they come up against much more all-rounded teams, as was the case against the Aussies.

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The task now for Parish is to use the talent available to him, and try to address the shortfalls in talent across the park, rather than relying on a select few.

They will look at the performance of Tonga during the campaign and will hope that they can follow in their footsteps.

However, it looks a long way before Samoa and Tonga can be classed as equals once more.

Grade- C

New Zealand

It was almost inconceivable before this tournament that the Kiwis wouldn’t progress to at least the semi-finals stage, and for large swathes of the tournament, they looked like they would be competing until the very end.

Big wins over Scotland and Samoa paved the way for another tournament of steamrolling all in David Kidwell’s group, yet their teams looked to have gone off the rails after their shock defeat against Tonga.

Their ability to lose from being 16-2 up at half-time looked to have dented a lot of their players confidence, and it is almost inevitable that it was still playing on their mind before their knockout game against Fiji.

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To have the talents of Shaun Johnson in the halves and not being able to break down an admittedly-incredible scrambling Fijian backline will be a huge source of embarrassment for New Zealanders everywhere.

We must admire Fiji’s heroics, but their quarter-final result will hurt a lot of Kiwi fans for years to come.

Despite this, expect New Zealand to be back with a vengeance when the World Cup returns to England in 2021.

Grade- D+

Lebanon

Competing in their first tournament since 2000, this Lebanese squad can be immensely proud of what they achieved over the space of their three weeks in the competition.

Coach Brad Fittler admitted that his side, made up with players mostly based in Australia, would probably not have the skill to match the big boys in the competition.

They did however, have the courage and determination to stand toe-to-toe with grand final winners, super league veterans, and top players of the game, and did not embarrass themselves in the slightest.

The aim now for Lebanon, who narrowly lost out to Tonga in their quarter-final in what many though would be a one-sided affair, is to grow the sport over in the Middle-East ready for 2021.

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If Lebanon can encourage more people to take up the sport, their player pool will be far bigger in four years.

It is a work in progress for this rugby league nation, yet the years ahead will have only been boosted by their incredible performances throughout this World Cup.

Grade- B

France

Year after year, France have a team that, on paper, should have the requisite quality to progress to the knockout stages of the World Cup.

They managed that feat in 2013, but Aurélien Cologni’s side had to settle for three defeats in their 2017 campaign.

Their best chance of winning came in their 29-18 loss to Lebanon, whose roaring fans perhaps gave them a psychological advantage over the French.

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Les Tricolores were never likely to get anything out of their games against England and Australia, but their ability to keep their points difference deficit is perhaps the most positive thing to be taken out of this tournament for them.

Their squad is only young though- the likes of captain Theo Fages and second-rower Benjamin Jullien will have far more experience of big game scenarios in 2021.

Cologni knows that his side have the talent there, and it is now his job to turn individually talented players into a far more coherent side.

Grade- D-

England

Optimism was high for Wayne Bennett’s side coming into the competition, but any thoughts that they had a squad to rival the likes of Australia were shattered in the opening game of the tournament.

It would’ve been easy for their heads to drop, but full credit must be given for the way that they bounced back and put in thoroughly professional performances against France and Lebanon.

The margins of victory were not as handsome as many fans will have hoped, yet that will not have concerned their Australian ‘supercoach’.

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Over the tournament, England developed into a far more well-rounded side, with the likes of Jermain McGilllvary and Ryan Hall showing why they are up there with the best wingers in the World.

Their ability to stand firm against PNG and Tonga, in what can both be described as extremely ferocious crowds, showed their resilience, and their narrow defeat in the final showed just how far they had progressed from day one to the last match.

The overwhelming response to England’s campaign will be pride, and it is now up to Wayne Bennett to decide whether or not he wants to stay on.

Regardless of his decision, England now have the core group of talent needed to push on in 2021, and will be hoping that they can go one step further in front of their home fans.

I for one think that it is very much a realistic suggestion.

Grade- A

Australia

This tournament has shown us two main things about international rugby league:

  1. The gap between the top teams has significantly narrowed from 2013.
  2. Australia’s ability to churn out such vast quantities of incredibly talented stars in somewhat-incredible.

Australia have won the World Cup yet again but, by their own admission, it was the hardest they have ever had to work for it.

Mal Meninga’s side have conceded just eight points in their last six World Cup knockout games! It is frightening to comprehend any team ever being able to do that again.

The Aussies, roared on by their vocal fans, know that this 2017 has been a sizeable success. Whether it be free-scoring rugby or tough-tackling in defence, they have continually set the benchmark for others to follow.

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The only real concern heading into 2021 is the number of players who will be retiring. Their spine of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk will likely be no more in four years’ time.

It is up to Meninga and his coaching team to continue to develop their young superstars, and hope they can continue to deliver the business for the Green and Gold’s.

Despite this, Australia can revel in the here and now. A tournament where they once again proved why they are the most superior nation in the history of the sport.

Grade- A+

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