Rugby League World Cup opening weekend key takeaways

The 2021 Rugby League World Cup is underway, and while we haven't quite completed the first round of group clashes, we have seen the big contenders and a big pretender in action.

England, Australia and New Zealand have all flexed their muscles, with various concerns raised and statements made. Samoa completely phoned in their performance and could do worse than study Lebanon's effort to see what kind of commitment is required at this level.

We take a look at some of the key takeaways from the weekend action in the north of England.

Samoa massively disappointing

The biggest shock of the weekend came from the performance of Samoa against England. With a team strengthened by State of Origin defections and a recent history of powerful displays, many were tipping a first up win against the hosts. It was widely thought that this was the game that would prove to everyone that the Rugby League World Cup was no longer a three-horse race. On paper, Samoa looked the equal of any team in the tournament, but rugby league games are clearly not won on paper.

England came out firing, looking more like a well-oiled machine than a hastily cobbled together mixture of NRL and Super League players. Sure, they had one practice match together, humiliating Fiji, but no one expected them to tear the Samoans apart with such ease. The forwards won the battle through the ruck and their backs feasted on the spoils. Some of the feeble attempts at tackling from the Samoans were equal parts embarrassing and disappointing.

The hopes for a more evenly contested World Cup seemed instantly dashed. But, maybe Samoa, who were short of a run together, can still build their combinations and confidence as the pool games progress. They have games against Greece and France to fix their issues, but can they really rise to the great heights everyone expected?

The old NRL truism of no side ever winning a premiership after having fifty or more points scored against them during the season keeps playing on my mind. Surely, no International team can bounce back from such a trouncing in a World Cup tournament.

Kangaroos rust might be more about selection issues

There has been plenty of talk about rust and cobwebs when describing Australia's first up performance, particularly in the early stages when Fiji grabbed an unexpected 6-0 lead on the back of some dominant play.

Australia coach Mal Meninga chose to go with a mostly Queensland spine, with Blues captain James Tedesco the only non-Maroon, possibly only because Kalyn Ponga wasn't available. The halves combination of Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Munster, coupled with hooker Ben Hunt, just wasn't working early on. Some credit for that can be given to the Fiji forwards who charged out of the blocks like they were running a 100 metre sprint, when unfortunately, a rugby league game is more like an 800 metre endurance.

As possession started to go Australia's way, and with Fiji losing steam and making errors, Meninga sent Harry Grant into the fray. Almost instantly he began to toy with the defence, his service helped the forwards get on top and the halves began to enjoy the back-pedalling Fijians.

There have been calls for Cherry-Evans to lose his position to Panthers superstar Nathan Cleary, and Meninga will no doubt give him a chance to prove himself over the next couple of games, but will Cleary be an instant upgrade at halfback?

One of the reasons for selecting three quarters of the Queensland spine was to benefit from their Origin-proven cohesion. How will Cleary fair when dropped into the middle of Hunt, Grant and Munster? There is only one way to find out, and as he adapts, his kicking game alone will surely make his contribution an improvement.

The other selection question is whether Meninga needs to stick with the Queensland plan of starting games with Hunt instead of Grant. Grant is more than capable of playing 80 minutes and his brilliance seems to rely more on guile and power than any sharpness of foot that would benefit from him being injected against a tiring defence.

Still, Australia were eventually convincing victors against Fiji, and have games against Scotland and Italy in which to fine tune their selections ahead of the big games.

Kiwis work nicely through Lebanon win

The third of the big three teams started their World Cup campaign against a dogged Lebanon side, coached by former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. Cheika's influence was evident throughout, with Lebanon mixing things up and showing an admirable willingness to commit their bodies to the cause.

Lebanon halfback Mitchell Moses showed moments of his NRL form, mixed in with some frustrating errors. And it was errors which ultimately cost the underdogs any real shot at an upset. The more ball the Kiwis had, the more impressive they looked and the more ragged the Lebanon defence became.

Joseph Manu showed why he is considered a superstar fullback in waiting, with his dominant display. Stuck in the centres at the Roosters behind captain James Tedesco, Manu enjoyed the roaming freedom of the fullback position for New Zealand. His devastating running game is matched by deft passing and perfect timing. He even threw in a kick-and-chase on the way to scoring his lone try in the second half.

New Zealand have Jamaica and Ireland in their remaining pool games and should be primed once the knock-out rounds start. With halfback Jahrome Hughes to return, I'd still have them slightly ahead of Australia at this stage, certainly on paper, that sometimes deceptive and often inconsequential measure.