In the rugby league world, Australia has long been the dominant force. So when it comes to plotting the Kangaroos' downfall at the World Cup, it was widely viewed a shrewd move by England to recruit Wayne Bennett.
If anyone knows the ins-and-outs of the Australian game it is Bennett, the most successful coach in the National Rugby League. He started his coaching career in 1977 — five years after the last World Cup title won by a British team — and his credentials include seven premierships in the national top flight, plus stints in charge of Queensland in the annual State-of-Origin series and of the Australian team.
He's a proud Australian, but also a firm believer in expanding the international game. And that's why he jumped at the chance to guide England after Australia decided that NRL club coaches would be ineligible to coach the Kangaroos. Mal Meninga, who has a relationship with Bennett going back to the 1970s, got the Kangaroos job.
When Australia hosts England in the tournament opener in Melbourne on Friday night, it'll be mentor against ex-pupil in the coaching boxes.
"We won't be at our best on Friday night, they won't be at their best either, it's where we're at in six weeks' time," Bennett said, reflecting on the opening match of the tournament and the last on Nov. 2. "We want to be in that final, that's what we're aiming for."
The winner in Melbourne is expected to get the easier of the paths to the final, with the loser likely to have to play New Zealand at home in a semifinal.
The Kangaroos have won 10 of the 14 World Cups to date, and been runner-up in three others. Britain, as a combined team, won three World Cup titles (1954, 1960 and 1972) but England's best solo run is to two runner-up finishes in 1975 and 1995. Adding to their woes, England hasn't beaten Australia in 22 years.
It's the biggest of the seven matches on the opening weekend. Tournament co-hosts Papua New Guinea will play Wales at Port Moresby on Saturday, followed by co-host New Zealand against Samoa in what is set to be an intense physical contest in Auckland and Jarred Hayne's Fijians against the United States in Townsville.
On Sunday, it's Ireland vs. Italy, France vs. Lebanon and Scotland vs. Tonga, which is shaping as a genuine semifinal contender with the additions of Jason Taumalolo — the North Queensland Cowboys star who opted out of playing for New Zealand — and Andrew Fifita, the Cronulla Sharks prop who pulled out of the Kangaroos squad.
Here's are some things to know:
ASHES CLASHES: Regular bilateral series between Australia and England are now commonly referred to as Ashes contests, named after the oldest and most famous of the cricket test series. Cricket's Ashes series will start in Brisbane in late November and conclude in the New Year.
The visiting rugby league team is hoping to provide some inspiration. Bennett, who is back at the Brisbane Broncos after coaching stints at St. George Illawarra and Newcastle, has had limited time to work with his England squad.
"They've been with me 12 months now so we all know each other," Bennett said. "There's much better understanding and acceptance of what we need to do."
Priority one will be to end the long drought against Australia. That won't be easy, though, against a Kangaroos lineup featuring hooker Cameron Smith, halfback Cooper Cronk and the returning fullback Billy Slater, the long-time "spine" of the Melbourne Storm's NRL premiership lineup. The Australian squad will be missing the injured Johnathan Thurston but have depth in pivotal playmaking positions and right across the field.
While England captain Sean O'Loughlin said "nothing is won the first week," Kangaroos skipper Smith believes the first week could set the tone.
"If you get beaten in that first game, you put yourself into a tricky position heading into quarterfinals and semifinals," Smith said. "I don't want to travel out of the country to play a final."
NEW ZEALAND WORRIES
New Zealand is the only team that has taken a World Cup off Australia since 1975, the Kiwis capturing their one-and-only title in 2008 with a dramatic win over the Kangaroos in Brisbane. The Kiwis have an array of NRL-hardened players and a history of against-the-odds upsets, but their preparation has been overshadowed by Taumalolo's decision to play for Tonga.
The Cowboys backrower has played for the Kiwis but chose — under rules allowing players who qualify for more than one country to transfer back and forth to teams outside the top tier — to switch.
Coach David Kidwell said his focus was only on the Kiwis players who committed to the squad.
"Dealing with adversity, I think every coach goes through it at different stages," Kidwell said. "I have just had to face it at the start."
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf has an infinitely stronger squad now that Taumalolo and Fifita joined the likes of Konrad Hurrell, Fuifui Moimoi and Tony Williams.
"Our expectations were high anyway but these guys certainly raised them," said Woolf.
HAYNE PLANE: FIJIAN FLYOVER
Since helping Fiji to the World Cup semifinals in 2008, Jarryd Hayne has played for Australia, propelled New South Wales to a classic — and rare — State-of-Origin victory, quit rugby league to play NFL for the San Francisco 49ers for a season, tried to qualify for Fiji's Olympic gold-medal winning sevens team, and returned to rugby league. He hasn't returned to his brilliant best, so he's hoping another World Cup will re-ignite his career.
Fiji forward Ashton Sims thinks Hayne has plenty to give.
"He's been one of the best influences in the team so far," Sims said. "His attitude is rubbing off on others and on his day he is one of the best players in the world."