By Alastair Finn
Last Updated: 02/12/17 9:07am
Ahead of England’s first Rugby League World Cup Final in 22 years, where they will face Australia for the right to lift the Paul Barriere trophy, we look at five key battles that will take place at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on Saturday…
Valentine Holmes v Jermaine McGillvary
Two of the best wingers in the world will face off on Saturday as Valentine Holmes and Jermaine McGillvary go head-to-head. Holmes tops the World Cup try-scoring charts with 12 touchdowns – 11 of which have come in his last two outings; Holmes scored five in the Kangaroos’ quarter-final win over Samoa before bagging six against Fiji in the semi-final.
Usually operating at full-back, Holmes has proven himself as one of the best finishers in the world – and at the tender age of 22 he could become a mainstay of the Australia side for many years to come.
McGillvary has had a World Cup to remember. He has been England’s strongest performer throughout the tournament and was deservedly named on the four-man shortlist for the 2017 Golden Boot award, only to miss out to the mercurial Cameron Smith who lifted the award earlier this week.
McGillvary has clocked up 1024 metres during the competition and, alongside fellow winger Ryan Hall, consistently helps out the England forwards by taking the ball up early in the tackle count and deep in England’s own half.
Still a one-club man with Huddersfield, McGillvary hasn’t experienced a game of this magnitude before – but having scored in every game of the World Cup, you wouldn’t back against him continuing that feat in the final and drawing the plaudits once again.
Billy Slater v Gareth Widdop
The two full-backs on Saturday will be highly influential in who lifts the World Cup – with both instrumental to their sides’ attacking pattern as well as offering security and stability in the last line of defence.
Dally M five-eighth of the year, Gareth Widdop, started at stand-off in the early rounds of the tournament before deputising for the injured Jonny Lomax when England faced France. An impressive performance led to Wayne Bennett opting to keep Halifax-born Widdop in the No 1 jersey for the remainder of the tournament.
The full-back role isn’t unfamiliar to Widdop as this is the position he played when he first joined Melbourne Storm nearly a decade ago – a period where he was the understudy to his opposite number this Saturday.
Named by many, including Laurie Daley, as the greatest full-back of all-time, Billy ‘The Kid’ Slater is the all-time leading World Cup try-scorer with 16 tries. After being away from the international game for three and a half years, Slater has had a fantastic tournament so far, crossing the line in all four games he has played – five tries in total – and cementing himself as one of the best players of his generation in doing so.
Saturday is almost certain to be Billy Slater’s last World Cup appearance in the green and gold jersey, and he’ll be looking to go out with a bang and add to his ever-increasing list of honours within rugby league.
Cameron Smith v James Roby
Recently named Golden Boot winner and Dally-M player of the year, Cameron Smith will be hoping to top off an incredible year by lifting the World Cup on Saturday – the first time on home soil.
An abundance of superlatives can be used to describe Smith; the talent, skill and ability of the Melbourne hooker never fails to amaze league fans. He will look to control the game on Saturday, as he always seems to do. If England can keep him quiet and Roby can outperform him, then the likelihood of Australia being overturned will increase dramatically. He is the key component for Australia.
St Helens hooker Roby had a stellar 2017 which led to him gaining a place in Wayne Bennett’s squad and with Josh Hodgson out injured Roby will be expected to play 80 minutes against the Aussies.
Roby will be crucial to England’s chances of success and having had a highly impressive tournament so far you wouldn’t back against Roby being a key figure in the outcome of this contest.
With Sean O’Loughlin’s late withdrawal from Saturday’s team, James Roby is the sole member of the England side that recorded a famous victory with Great Britain over Australia down under in 2006 – And he will be drawing on this experience to help spur England to World Cup glory.
Cooper Cronk V Luke Gale
Both teams’ kicking games will be crucial in Saturday’s showpiece, and Luke Gale and Cooper Cronk will lead the way in this department. Both players will have to guide their teams around the pitch and be at the forefront of any last-play moves.
Gale, who collected the Super League Man of Steel award this year, has grown in confidence as the tournament has progressed and seems to be settled partnering Kevin Brown in the halves. If he can bring the game that led Castleford Tigers to a League Leaders’ Shield in 2017, the Kangaroos will have something to think about.
Gale’s opposite number Cronk has been a fundamental part of Australia’s success over the past decade. He had a superb final season for Melbourne Storm and the link-up he creates with Slater and Smith will keep asking questions of the English defence – his big game experience over Gale may prove the difference.
Australia v England: World Cup final head to head
Make your selection for each position
Mal Meninga v Wayne Bennett
Wayne Bennett and Mal Meninga’s relationship goes back more than 40 years. It was Bennett who scouted a 15-year-old Meninga when he was in the Queensland Police Academy and Mal went on to have a decorated playing career parallel to Bennett’s record-breaking coaching career. They now both face-off as coaches in a World Cup final.
Meninga has a 100 per cent winning record since taking over in December 2015, and with so many talented players at his disposal, Meninga faced a tough decision when naming his team for the latter stages of the competition. The Australian player pool seems almost endless; Meninga is blessed with a plethora of talent at his disposal.
Bennett has shown his class once again at the helm of England guiding them to their first World Cup Final since 1995. He is second to nobody in terms of experience and rugby league knowledge – but can that translate into an England World Cup win?
The mind games between these two began at the start of the tournament but this week have intensified. It’s all about the result in the record books however, and it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top on the biggest stage of them all in Saturday’s World Cup final – A match not to be missed!