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Australia may have lived up to expectations by winning their 12th Rugby League World Cup but the tournament proved to be so much more for the game's development
  1. Rugby League

Rugby League World Cup: Tournament review

Australia may have lived up to expectations by winning their 12th Rugby League World Cup but the tournament proved to be so much more for the game's development.

The Kangaroos beat Samoa 30-10 in Saturday's final at Old Trafford, with Latrell Mitchell and James Tedesco grabbing braces and Liam Martin and Cameron Murray also going over.

Mal Meninga's side's 16-14 semi-final win over New Zealand is already being talked about as one of the greatest games of all time but it was not just the big teams that made their mark.

While the men's tournament was the main focus, the women's competition was also celebrated as the Australians preceded their male counterparts by beating New Zealand in the final.

Other tournaments were also played as part of the Festival of World Cups to celebrate the inclusion and diversity of the sport.

The hope now is that the authorities can produce a more coordinated international calendar to help the relative newcomers across all forms of the game continue to develop.

Australia expected and the Kangaroos delivered

The NRL remains the dominant club competition in world rugby league and with it predominantly played in Australia, the two-time defending champions were the huge favourites to make it a hat-trick.

Meninga's men struggled early on, with their opening match against Fiji at Headingley the first time the Kangaroos had played since 2019. However, they slowly found their way, running out 42-8 victors.

After also beating Scotland and Italy, they avoided a slip-up against Lebanon in the quarter-finals and produced their best performance when they needed it by outlasting the Kiwis.

Their opponents in the final, Samoa, defeated hosts England in the last four. 

Their game at the Emirates may have fallen short compared to the other semi-final regarding quality, but it arguably surpassed it in the drama stakes, as Stephen Crichton kicked a Golden Point drop goal to make history as Samoa reached their maiden final.

Crichton was on the board again in Saturday's showpiece with both ball in hand and from the tee but it was not enough as Australia ran in six tries to triumph 30-10 in Manchester and make it a dozen world titles.

Sport continues to develop

The 16th Men's Rugby League World Cup was the first to feature 16 teams, the most to have ever been included in the finals. 

Jamaica, Greece and the Cook Islands all made their debuts, with the latter recording their first victory as they defeated Wales 18-12 in their first-ever game.

Samoa reaching the final is evidence in itself that the sport is growing. However, where there is a positive for rugby league the rest of the sporting world usually finds a negative and spreading the word often leads to circumstances that generate criticism of the game.

England's record-breaking 94-4 group-stage win over Greece prompted adulation but their lack of a genuine test in the early stages, including putting 60 points on the Samoans in their opening game, left them less than battle-hardened.

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Eligibility rules improve the game

However, there is no doubt that the changes to the eligibility roles in recent years have helped widen the playing pool.

Some players who were previously unable to represent their ancestral homes, or sometimes even their country of birth, can now feature for the likes of Lebanon, Greece and, crucially, the Pacific Island nations that have brought so much to both this tournament and the sport itself.

For some of the tournament faults, you can bet most of the criticism of the sport does not come from someone carrying the ball into a determined Cook Islander defence.

With their players and others now gaining more top level exposure, they will already be planning for the next tournament in France in 2025.

Focus now on 2023 and beyond

England's departure was greeted by frustration, with questions surrounding Shaun Wane's selection raised both before and during the World Cup.

The tournament has also given certain players a point to prove. Jake Connor could have been the missing link in England's malfunctioning attack against Samoa and now treads a new path, albeit on familiar ground, having returned to his first club Huddersfield after six seasons at Hull FC.

The Giants have been making solid progress under Ian Watson and with Connor added to the fold, they are 11/1 to win a maiden Super League title.

Other England players also look set to leave the international fold, with captain Sam Tomkins set to retire from national duty and his extra focus on club rugby is sure to benefit the Catalans Dragons, currently 13/2 for a maiden Grand Final success.

As for the NRL, two-time defending champions, the Penrith Panthers had 19 of their players selected for the World Cup across seven nations, with eight of those playing in the final. 

The Panthers are 5/2 to achieve the rare feat of winning three successive NRL Grand Finals.

The dominance of the NRL means Australia will again be the favourites heading into the 2025 World Cup. 

However, the way rugby league continues to grow suggests it may again be more difficult for the usual suspects to dominate.

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