The 2017 Rugby League World Cup ends with an exciting contest between Australia and England at Brisbane Stadium. They met in the first match of the tournament, which saw the Australians finish late in beating England. Since then the confidence and make-up of the sides have changed, with England reaching a World Cup final for the first time in 22 years.
Australia’s form has come leaps and bounds since their group matches, having their spine working as one and producing dominate performances. The hosts have exploited their opponents’ weaknesses, with consistency in possession and completions showing why they are heavily favoured to win the World Cup on home soil.
England has cemented a spot in the final, winning all their matches after falling to Australia in the World Cup opener. England’s form has improved tremendously since the positional switch of Gareth Widdop to fullback, setting up two Super League halves in Luke Gale and Kevin Brown to take the reins, with the security of Widdop out the back for set plays or in defence. The most impressive part of England’s recent form is their tight and scrambling defensive line, with a massive forward pack being able to halt their opponents’ attack; however with Josh Hodgson now out, the stand-in hooker James Roby has a huge task of silencing Cameron Smith in the middle.
The last time these two sides met was in the first pool match of the tournament in Melbourne. It was a close encounter with the Kangaroos holding a 10-4 lead until the 75th minute; the English scored in the opening minutes of the match but the Australians muscled their way back and played off the back of their opponents’ penalties. A crucial late penalty was the difference with both teams’ defence giving nothing away at the back end of the match, with Australia winning 18-4.
The team statistics through this World Cup have Australia on top for most tries and points. The Kangaroos have also accumulated the most average run metres, while having 200 more on average than England.
England has been consistent like the Australians in many of the attacking figures – whether it’s linebreaks or try assists – but the most congratulating statistic is the average runs produced by the English (44 more than Australia). Tackles made by England are significantly more than the Kangaroos – with over 150 more in the tournament. It will be increasingly important when coming up against the best attacking side in International rugby league.
The final will have a mouth-watering matchup between fullbacks Billy Slater and Gareth Widdop. The pair have been outstanding in guiding their sides around the field while holding safe out the back of their teams’ defence and providing much-needed experience.
This key battle holds an interesting comparison with Widdop only moving from his regular five-eighth position to fullback midway through the tournament while going up against arguably the best fullback of the modern era. Widdop’s performances since the change has been a huge reason why the England has made the final; the secure positioning in transition while being a sliding and roaming playmaker has made the English attack more potent with a last pass option or helping the main halves. This clash has Widdop excelling in some statistics, with the newly-formed fullback averaging 20 more runs and four more try assists than Slater. If England are to create an upset victory Widdop will need to be the man to guide his side out of their end, while being near perfect with attacking decisions, either with his passing or being an extra option for his halves, as he has done throughout the tournament.
Billy Slater – coming off an incredible comeback through 2017 – has the chance to cement another World Cup victory for himself and Australia in the twilight years of his career. The veteran Kangaroo currently holds the most tries in World Cup history with 16 and will want to contribute more in the final, scoring five in the tournament so far. Slater – against his former Melbourne Storm teammate – has the opportunity to teach Widdop why he is such a great organising fullback and attacking weapon, as the Australian number one has recorded 50 additional average run metres than the English back with 20 less runs made but three more line breaks. Slater will be in the thick of the Australian attack, showing his incredible pace off sweeping plays while having the needed big game experience to make the match-winning play or provide his team with his signature try saves.
The English, playing in their first World Cup final since 1995, will want to prove they can match it with the best team in the world; the combinations and strong forward pack of England has been impressive, many teams underestimate this squad as even the Australians were challenged and caught off guard in the opening match. The Kangaroos, with their captain Cameron Smith and Slater being in the losing side of the 2008 tournament, will have that strong desire to lift the trophy nine years later. The experience of Australia’s spine will produce points with even the lowest possession, with nearly every set in their opponents’ half resulting in a monumental task for England to hold fast for 80 minutes in what will be an epic finale between the best two teams of the World Cup.
Australia by 12
Australia squad: 1. Billy Slater, 2. Dane Gagai, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Josh Dugan, 5. Valentine Holmes, 6. Michael Morgan, 7. Cooper Cronk, 8. Aaron Woods, 9. Cameron Smith (c), 10. David Klemmer, 11. Boyd Cordner, 12. Matt Gillett, 13. Josh McGuire. Interchange: 14. Wade Graham, 15. Jordan McLean, 16. Reagan Cambell-Gillard, 17. Tyson Frizell.
England squad: 1. Gareth Widdop, 2. Jemaine McGillvary, 3. Kallum Watkins, 4. John Bateman, 5. Ryan Hall, 6. Kevin Brown, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Chris Hill, 9. James Roby, 10. James Graham, 11. Sam Burgess, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. Sean O’Loughlin (c).
Interchange: 14. Alex Walmsley, 15. Thomas Burgess, 16. Ben Currie, 17 Chris Heighington.
Reserves: 18. Jonny Lomax, 19. Scott Taylor, 20. George Williams, 21. Mark Percival.
Venue: Brisbane Stadium, Brisbane, 8pm (AEDT)
Televised: Channel Seven – Live Coverage, Saturday 2nd December.