World Cup opening weekend: Five things we learned

Papua New Guinea beat Wales at home. Picture: NRL Photos
Papua New Guinea beat Wales at home. Picture: NRL Photos

Five things we learned from the opening weekend of the rugby league World Cup...

1. Reaction to England’s 18-4 loss to Australia seemed to fall under two banners - ‘something to work on’ or ‘same ol’ story’.

But either way, the scoreline certainly seemed cruel on Wayne Bennett’s side, who showed considerable improvement as the second-half unfolded.

Across the board there were some bright performances, with all-action winger Jermaine McGillvary arguably the pick of the crop. And it was good to see St Helens hooker James Roby make such a big impact on his return to the national side.

Interestingly, John Bateman’s presence the No.4 shirt means he has now started six games at centre for England - as opposed to playing twice as a forward, his main position with Wigan.

In the other Group A match, Lebanon edged France 29-18 but it was hard not to feel sorry for their player Chris Saab, who had put off retirement to play in this World Cup... but missed the game after being knocked out in warm-up.

2. The talk in the build-up to the tournament was about the players who were missing from the New Zealand squad, rather than those who they still had in their ranks.

Playing their first home game in three years, they provided a firm reminder of their credentials when they ran out 38-8 winners against a physical Samoa side.

Shaun Johnson formed an exciting halfback combination with Kodi Nikorima, with livewire fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck adding some stardust and Thomas Leuluai looking more comfortable in the hooker role, having spent the year at halfback for Wigan.

Elsewhere in Group B, Scotland - coached by Wigan’s Steve McCormack - were thumped 38-8 by star-studded Tonga.

3. Ireland produced the first upset of the World Cup with a 36-12 win against an Italy side reinforced with NRL stars.

While Wales and Scotland wilted under the baking sun, the Irish - with Wigan hooker Micky McIlorum in the thick of the action - were sensational in Cairns as they opened up a 20-0 lead inside half an hour.

Italy’s loss came at a cost, with halfback Jack Johns - son of one-time Warrior Matthew - forced off with an arm injury.

The prospect of seeing Ireland’s McIlorum, Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Brad Singleton and Kyle Amor in action against Papua New Guinea is mouth-watering.

4. Fiji and PNG added a dash of colour and feelgood factor, both in the style of their performances and the subsequent celebrations.

Former Kangaroo and NFL star Jarryd Hayne matched Bob Fulton’s World Cup try-scoring record of 13 as Fiji hammered Brian McDermott-coached USA by 58-12.

Only the hardest of heart couldn’t have been touched by footage of their hymn in the dressing room.

Meanwhile, PNG ran in 10 tries to demolish Wales 50-6 in front of a fanatical sold-out home crowd in Port Moresby. The Kumuls appear to have added some guile and structure to their ferocity and passion, though their win was marred by a biting allegation, which was placed on report.

5. The opening game was the most-watched TV programme in Australia on Friday night, with an average of 1.4m viewers.

And the 915,000 metro average was the highest for a Friday rugby league game this year.

If the viewing figures were encouraging, the crowd was a disappointment.

Just 22,724 spectators watched Australia’s game with England in Melbourne - down on the 36,000-plus gate for the 2008 World Cup match between the same teams in the same city, and just half the crowd which watched the opening game in Cardiff four years ago.