Dave Craven: World Cup offers a lot more than an England watching brief

THERE WAS a time when, even with the heartbreak it inevitably brought, many rugby league fans would only be bothered about watching England at a Rugby League World Cup.

Liam Finn

For them, seeing their side tackle the Kangaroos and Kiwis would be the essence of the entire competition with everyone simply hoping they could do enough against one or the other to go on and reach the final.

True to form, plenty will no doubt tune in this morning to see Wayne Bennett’s team tackle minnows Lebanon as the manoeuvring through the pool stages continues before the main event of knockout rugby.

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However, thankfully – and for the good of the global game – England are no longer the be all and end all.

Sika Manu

Yes, all English fans would love them to go on and finally lift a World Cup for the first time, Great Britain having previously done so in 1954, 1960 and 1972.

But this weekend, just as many people are likely to be looking forward to a couple of other games equally so. Indeed, it is hard to decide which is the most fascinating tie – the sheer ferocity surely imminent between Samoa and Tonga or a similarly intriguing game as a wonderfully enterprising Papua New Guinea face Mark Aston’s ebullient Ireland.

Regardless, the so-called second-tier nations are now becoming more of an attraction in their own right and rightly so.

Everyone expected Tonga to fire onto the scene given their high-profile recruits, Andrew Fifita shunning champions Australia and Jason Taumalolo doing likewise to New Zealand.

Sika Manu

It is not like they were short of power and strength with the likes of Super League forwards Ben Murdoch-Masila, Sika Manu and Ukuma Ta’ai in their ranks while ex-Kangaroos centre Michael Jennings is sheer class.

But with the new additions in tow it became like men against boys as they destroyed Scotland.

They are so talented that Mahe Fonua – the explosive Hull FC winger who has made Super League’s Dream Team in each of the last two seasons – didn’t get near the matchday 17.

Their game against fierce rivals Samoa in Hamilton in the early hours of this morning – with the victors destined for a quarter-final berth – could be a classic if they try concentrating on rugby and matters don’t get too heated.

But the Papuans, too, have brought such panache. In days gone by, they would rely on legendary talismen like Stanley Gene or Adrian Lam to sometimes single-handedly drag them through.

Now, though, as a beleaguered Wales will attest, they have such a well-rounded and balanced side that possess threats all over.

And what about all that noise and atmosphere in Port Moresby, those scenes when Castleford Tigers-bound ‘King’ Garry Lo visited the local schools? PNG is mad about rugby league.

That said, Ireland will be confident of teaching them a lesson or two of their own if they are as dynamic as shown versus Italy.

Wakefield’s Scott Grix, in particular, and Liam Finn came in for some stick after a couple of errors towards the back end of Trinity’s fine campaign so how fitting to see them perform so well and prove their class on a world stage.

Ecstatic Lebanese fans celebrating an historic win v France, Fiji lighting up Townsville and – despite a loss and player infighting – Italy this week becoming the 19th nation to gain full member status of the Rugby League International Federation...

All more examples of why not everyone’s sole focus is on Bennett and co.