Stakes rise at Rugby League World Cup 2013
By Ben Horne
Three greats of the modern era could finish their careers without achieving the pinnacle of international rugby league, should favourites Australia once again fail on the World Cup stage.
New Zealand's startling win back in 2008 means the tournament starting next week in the UK and France could be the last chance for Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Billy Slater to reach the heights of the great Kangaroos before them.
Following the pattern of irregularity which has plagued the rugby league World Cup since its inception in 1954 (33 years before rugby had its first World Cup), it's been five years since the Kiwis were crowned champions for the first time.
But the long wait has only risen the stakes for the game's elite.
Australia's dominance through the years (nine trophies from 13 tournaments) means World Cup victory has featured on the resumes of most of the game's post World War II elite - including immortals Johnny Raper, Graham Langlands, Bob Fulton, Wally Lewis, Artie Beetson and Andrew Johns.
Smith, Thurston and Slater, who could all realistically be considered for immortal status, have won grand finals and conquered all with Queensland.
But at 30 years of age, it's doubtful all three would be around for the next Cup in 2017.
However, it's not just the Kangaroos who have been sprung into action by the Kiwis' heroics under Stephen Kearney in '08.
Sonny Bill Williams walked out on Canterbury before the last World Cup began, and in contrast to his ever-growing list of achievements, he's never even won a Test match with the Kiwis.
A rugby world cup winner with the All Blacks in 2011, Williams is hoping his 11th hour backflip to play for New Zealand will result in him becoming the first dual international to ever claim Cup victory in both codes.
Kiwis' coach Kearney is also on the verge of World Cup greatness.
If New Zealand can defend their title, he'll join Australians Bob Fulton and Harry Bath as the only coaches to oversee two World Cup wins.
Fulton's record of four Cup appearances as a player and two as coach make him untouchable as rugby league's most dominant figure at this level.
But Kearney, who played two World Cups for New Zealand as a player (47 Tests in total), can create his own legacy as one of the game's most successful international player/coaches.
As it was for Ricky Stuart after '08, anything short of victory will be the end of Tim Sheens' Kangaroos career.
The tournament kick-off between Australia and England in Cardiff on October 26, is a major test for the credibility of the Poms, coached by Steve McNamara.
Great Britain have won three World Cups.
The last was way back in 1972 - and going it alone, England's trophy cabinet is empty.
They were completely outclassed back in 2008, but on home soil and with the Burgess brothers, James Graham and Gareth Widdop giving them a strong grounding in NRL experience - England are capable of pushing Australia and New Zealand.
There is no escaping the fact that the World Cup is at best a three-horse race.
However, the dramatic increase in Polynesian players in the NRL over the past decade has given the tournament a rejuvenation and its own unique atmosphere.
In the past, rugby league's eligibility rules have been seen as a laughing stock.
But there's nothing artificial about the passion Polynesian players hold for representing their countries of origin, even if they themselves weren't born there.
Fiji were semi-finalists in 2008, and with veteran Petero Civoniceva at the helm, they are once again a tricky opponent.
Samoa and Tonga are flooded with NRL talent and could make life difficult for one of the big guns at the business end.
Papua New Guinea will do it tough, but no team will play with more heart.
And while Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy, Cook Islands and the United States may be outclassed - there shouldn't be any of the embarrassing 100-plus scorelines that marred the last UK Cup in 2000.
source: newshub archive