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Australians are favorites for 6th straight crown

HDN | 10/28/2000 12:00:00 AM |

Powerhouse teams England and Australia meet on the opening day at Twickenham and the result will give a strong clue as to who will win the title Paris - Reuters Australia will be aiming to keep alive one of the longest winning streaks in international sport when they begin their defense of rugby league's World Cup trophy today. The Australians have won all five of the World Cup tournaments to be contested since 1972 -- when they were beaten by Britain in the final in Lyon -- emerging triumphant in

  • Powerhouse teams England and Australia meet on the opening day at Twickenham and the result will give a strong clue as to who will win the title
  • Paris - Reuters

    Australia will be aiming to keep alive one of the longest winning streaks in international sport when they begin their defense of rugby league's World Cup trophy today.

    The Australians have won all five of the World Cup tournaments to be contested since 1972 -- when they were beaten by Britain in the final in Lyon -- emerging triumphant in 1975, 1977, 1988, 1992 and 1995.

    Australia open their title defense against England at Twickenham in the first rugby league game to be played at the traditional home of rugby union.

    The 31 matches in the tournament, which will be contested by 16 teams, will be played at 28 different venues across England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France.

    Venues include rugby union strongholds including Stradey Park, Llanelli, and Kingsholm, Gloucester, as the 13-man code seeks to expand its horizons.

    The final, to be played at Manchester United's Old Trafford Ground on Nov. 25, could well be a repeat of the England-Australia opener with the defending champions, New Zealand and England the three strongest sides in the tournament.

    "The World Cup is the biggest sporting event in this country this year and obviously our credibility is at stake," said England coach John Kear. "We realize we have a duty to the sport to perform.

    "There is a real air of excitement and anticipation in the squad."

    A knee injury to winger Nathan McEvoy has not helped England's cause and the cocky Australian players have raised the hackles of their rivals by talking not only of winning the opener, but also of going through the tournament without conceding a point.

    The Australian side named by coach Chris Anderson to play England will be unchanged from the one that thrashed Papua New Guinea 82-0 in a warm-up international a fortnight ago. In another preparatory game, the Aussies trounced a New Zealand Residents XIII 108-0.

    Aussies overwhelming favorites

    Australia have won eight of the 11 World Cups held to date and are overwhelming 1-7 favorites with the bookmakers but Anderson has warned his team that they can take nothing for granted - pointing to previous Test losses in Britain as an example.

    England beat Australia 20-16 in the opening game of the 1995 tournament before the Kangaroos regathered their wits and beat the home side 16-8 in the final at Wembley.

    "These World Cups are littered with favorites being beaten so it is important we do our homework and prepare as well as we possibly can," said Anderson. "We would be silly to put pressure on ourselves by talking about going through without conceding a point."

    The losers at Twickenham are likely to face a powerful New Zealand side in the final four, something both Kear and Anderson will be keen to avoid.

    The top two teams in each of four groups will advance to the quarterfinals but there is the likelihood of some one-sided thrashings being handed out in early matches as the likes of Russia and Fiji try to match it with England and Australia in Group One.

    England warmed up for the tournament with a 20-try 110-0 romp past the United States in Orlando, but the Americans have not made the tournament having lost in the qualifying round to debutants Lebanon.

    England's faint hopes of matching the Australians rest largely on their scrumbase combination of Sean Long and Tony Smith and whether their pack can match the combative favorites.

    The Aussies boast players of the calibre of Brad Fittler, Wendell Sailor and Gorden Tallis while Newcastle playmaker Andrew Johns, considered one of the best scrum-halves in the world, will play at hooker to make space in the side for talented Brett Kimmorley.

    Kiwis can launch serious challenge

    New Zealand pushed Australia all the way in the semis five years ago and Bradford Bulls star Robbie Paul believes the Kiwis are poised to again mount a serious title challenge.

    "The World Cup is a test of character and we come well prepared for that," said Paul. "We have come through a lot together and the tournament is a platform to show just how much we have progressed."

    While Australia, England and New Zealand are clearly the strongest teams in the competition, the other places in the quarterfinals are very much up for grabs.

    France, who host Group Three that also includes Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Tonga, badly need to advance to help their sport stay alive at home.

    With a squad that includes the likes of Jerome Guisset and Freddie Banquet, the French should make it, but have shown an alarming tendency to self destruct in the past.

    New Zealand are considered certainties to finish on top of Group Two but Wales, Lebanon and the Cook Islands all fancy their chances of being the second qualifiers.

    Rugby league has never been played in Lebanon but a rough, tough team of Australians of Lebanese descent won the European/North African qualifying event and then beat the United States for a place in the tournament.

    Lebanon skipper Darren Marroon has been cleared to play in the tournament despite testing positive for ephedrine -- the Australian authorities accepting his explanation that he took the banned substance by mistake.

    Group Four, to be contested by Scotland and Ireland, the New Zealand Maoris and Samoa looks wide open with Ireland, having trawled the world for players with Irish ancestry, and the Maoris the likely qualifiers.

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