Special for RUGBYMag.com by Brian Lowe
The 2013 Rugby League World Cup is underway and the USA is set to make its debut coming off the back of what is unquestionably its most famous victory to date, a come-from-behind win against highly-ranked France.
The Tomahawks fought back from a 14-10 halftime deficit to hang on for a gritty 22-18 win and they did it with only 12 men late in the game after having a player sin-binned.
The 14th edition of the RLWC got off to a spectacular start with a thrilling doubleheader at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff that saw Australia hold off England and co-hosts Wales go down to the other World Cup newbies Italy.
The Wales v Italy matchup was of particular interest to the USA as the Tomahawks are set to tangle with the Welsh in their second preliminary round game, a match that potentially shapes up as pivotal to their chances of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Fourteen countries have qualified for RLWC2013 and they’ve been slotted into four Groups (A,B,C,D). There are four teams in both Groups A and B, while Groups C and D consist of three teams each. The USA is in Group D.
Eight teams will go through to the playoff rounds including the winners of each Group, the runners-up in Groups A and B and the third-placed teams from Groups A and B.
So, for the Tomahawks to achieve their goal of making the Rugby League world sit up and take notice, if it hasn’t already done so, they need to either win Group D outright, or, if they happen to tie with someone else, they’ll need a superior points differential to advance.
The USA’s preliminary round games are against Group D rivals the Cook Islands and Wales, followed by a Group C/D crossover match against Scotland.
The US is currently ranked #12 on the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) world rankings. The Dragons and Bravehearts are ranked higher, while the Kukis are ranked lower.
All four teams have played warm-up games leading up to RLWC2013 and while rankings and warm-ups don’t necessarily mean a whole lot before major tournaments, it’s interesting to note the Tomahawks’ historic victory over France in relation to the results posted by their opponents.
Pre-tournament warm-up games:
#2 New Zealand 50-0 #18 Cook Islands
#12 USA 22-18 #4 France
#6 Papua New Guinea 38-20 #11 Scotland
#5 Wales 62-12 Welsh Select X111
These scores notwithstanding, the Tomahawks would be expected to win Wednesday’s game against the Cook Islands if for no other reason than because of their upset of France in Toulouse.
And don’t think for one minute Les Chanticleers fielded a second string team because they didn’t. It was a very strong lineup that included seasoned French internationals Thomas Bosch, Olivier Elima, Remi Casty, Vincent Duport and William Barthau among others. The fact of the matter is the US played better football on the night, plain and simple.
The Tomahawks have played their three RLWC2013 rivals before, losing to all of them, but that was way back in 1995 when Rugby League was still a fledgling club sport in the USA, largely limited to the Philadelphia area.
The USA lost to the Cook Islands and Scotland at the Emerging Nations tournament in the UK, as well as to Wales earlier that year, but we’re talking about a whole different ballgame now due to the RLIF’s heritage eligibility rule that allows players to represent the country where a parent or grandparent was born. And in the case of developing nations like the USA, that’s a big plus.
Although the Scots are ranked one place higher than the Tomahawks, the USA is at the very least an even money bet to win their Group crossover match as Scotland’s last W came during the 2011 autumn internationals. It’s been slim pickings since then for the Bravehearts, while conversely, the USA has put together four straight wins since July, including three against Canada and the France game (can’t stress the significance of the French win nearly enough).
Another factor in America’s favor is that Scotland has had a very limited preparation for RLWC2013.
Potentially, Wales looks to pose the biggest obstacle despite their last W being posted in the 2010 European Cup. The Dragons have retooled since then and their squad is jam packed with European Super League and NRL talent.
They’re coached by former dual international Iestyn Harris, plus they’re playing at home in front of boisterous and emotional fans, so you know they’ll be pumped to perform to the max. However, what should buoy the US is Italy being able to control the Welsh on opening day.
The reality is the Wales and Scotland games can potentially go either way, but the US looks to have the measure of the Cook Islands, meaning it should get off to a winning start and if that happens, combined with the outstanding French result, the Tomahawks will go into the Wrexham matchup full of confidence.
Provided they can punch above their weight and win that game, the Tomahawks will be in the box seat to finish over the top of Scotland.
Realistically they can go 2-1, but they’re a legitimate shot at 3-0 and while that may be a lofty prediction, it’s not impossible. And after all, the team’s goal is to shock the world.
USA RLWC2013 Schedule:
Cook Islands (Bristol, October 30)
Wales (Wrexham, November 3)
Scotland (Salford City, November 7)
USA Lineup to face Cook Islands
1. Kristian Freed
2. Bureta Faraimo
3. Michael Garvey
4. Loto Tagaloa
5. Matt Petersen
6. Joseph Paulo (C)
7. Craig Priestly
8. Junior Paulo
9. Joel Luani
10. Eddy Pettybourne
11. Clint Newton
12. Matt Shipway
13. Daniel Howard
14. Tui Samoa
15. Mark Offerdahl
16. Stephen Howard
17. Les Soloai
18. David Marando
19. Judah Lavulo