The Kiwis Have a Chance at Sporting Immortality This Year.

In the 68 years since the first Rugby League World Cup in France in 1954, only one New Zealand team has lifted the Paul Barriere trophy.

That was back in 2008 – who could forget – when coaches Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett masterminded a shock upset of Australia in the final in Brisbane, with Benji Marshall, Adam Blair and Jeremy Smith prominent.

The Kiwis have lost three other deciders (1988, 2000 and 2013) and claimed third place finishes on four occasions.

But the 2022 tournament represents their best chance since that magical night at Suncorp Stadium 14 years ago, with a golden generation of players available to coach Michael Maguire.
It’s hard to remember when the Kiwis have had so much talent, especially in the forwards, where their pack should have the edge over both Australia and England, if everyone is available.

Penrith enforcer James Fisher-Harris has been recognised as the NRL’s best prop over the last two seasons, while hooker Brandon Smith is a unique talent and a
big game player.

Add in the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Joseph Tapine, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Tohu Harris, Isaiah Papalii and Marata Niukore and the Kiwis have amazing riches in the engine room.

But it doesn’t stop there. Though he doesn’t always get recognised by Australian pundits, there are few better playmakers than Melbourne Storm’s Jahrome Hughes, while 21-year-old Dylan Brown has already demonstrated his huge potential for Parramatta.

Shaun Johnson will bring experience and spark to his Cup swansong and Joseph Manu is probably the best centre in the NRL.

The Kiwis have pace, power and physicality, for a tournament falling at
just the right time, compared to the last two quadrennial events.

There were high hopes in 2013, but Kearney’s team never quite clicked. The drama of Sonny Bill Williams and his late selection U-turn didn’t help, while few of that squad had actually tasted victory over Australia, which showed in a one sided final.

The 2017 campaign always looked precarious, with rookie coach David Kidwell on a steep learning curve. The loss of captain Bromwich was a massive blow, before the late defection of Jason Taumalolo and several other players to Tonga derailed things completely, ahead of a miserable quarter final exit to Fiji.

2022 feels different. There isn’t the same fear factor attached to the Kangaroos, shown when Maguire enjoyed a trans-Tasman victory at his first attempt in 2018.

Once in a lifetime Australian players like Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater have retired, along with Johnathan Thurston, and their successors have yet to prove their abilities on such a stage.

England will be tough on home soil, but they are going through a transitional phase from the team that was built around the Burgess brothers and James Graham and haven’t beaten New Zealand in a World Cup match since 1989.

Tonga will be dark horses, though the northern hemisphere conditions will be a challenge for the sentimental favourites.

It is expected to be best tournament of the modern era. Samoa could have their strongest ever team, while Fiji and Papua New Guinea have plenty of NRL talent and the French league is enjoying a renaissance, though they won’t get close to their famous 1972 triumph.

There will be a record number of men’s teams (16), while the women’s and wheel-chair tournaments will run concurrently.

The Kiwis’ campaign kicks off on 17 October against Lebanon, with debutants Jamaica and Ireland the other teams in their pool.

The Kangaroos will be favourites – they always are – but the Kiwis have a wonderful opportunity. Test matches are decided up front and New Zealand has the heavy artillery to dominate any team, especially on the heavier English grounds.

Michael Burgess
Sports Writer