The former Great Britain hooker Keiron Cunningham believes England are the only side who can upset the favourites Australia at the Rugby League World Cup. The Kangaroos, who host the tournament, will be bidding for a seventh consecutive World Cup crown when their tournament begins against New Zealand on Sunday.
But Cunningham, who turned down a plea from England coach Tony Smith to come out of international retirement for the World Cup, believes his countrymen, who will kick off the tournament tomorrow against Papua New Guinea, could yet cause a shock. "Australia are massive favourites," he said. "They've dominated rugby league for decades now, they've got some of the world's greatest players and they're on home soil.
"That makes them formidable opponents. "But favourites can comfortably be toppled and England have the players and the coach to do that in Tony Smith." England's Australian coach has become an adopted Briton after being granted British citizenship recently and St Helens veteran Cunningham believes Smith has the tactical acumen required to lead England to World Cup success for the first time since 1972 when playing as Great Britain.
He said: "It sounds a bit obvious but it is all about getting to the final. "If England can do that I'm sure that'll make the Aussies start feeling vulnerable. "They're less invincible than in the past and the English always love to get one up on the Aussies. "England need to ensure they can get the better of New Zealand in their pool match and probably the subsequent semi-final." The three top teams in group A, which consists of Australia, England, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, will automatically qualify for the semi-finals while the winners of group B - made up of Fiji, France and Scotland - and group C, which consists of Ireland, Samoa and Tonga, will battle it out in a play-off match for the remaining place in the last four.
The New Zealand cause seems likely to be helped by the return to fitness of influential trio Nathan Cayless, Lance Hohaia and Manu Vatuvei, all of whom are available for against Australia. The Kiwis have been taking part in wrestling as part of their preparations and coach Stephen Kearney, who has Australian back-up in former player Wayne Bennett as his assistant, believes his side could catch the Kangaroos on the hop.
Kearney said: "Dene [Halatau] has recovered well from his operation while the others are all good to go as well and it's always good to get your skipper back so it's great to have Nathan in the side again. "We need to hit the tournament with a bang, show Australia and the rest of the sides in the tournament that the results aren't a foregone conclusion from the word go." * The National