For rugby league nerds, this weekend is the true rugby league Christmas. We have a phenomenal mix of men’s and women’s games, featuring top line players representing teams from all over the southern hemisphere. There’s a World Cup qualifier in Sydney between the Cook Islands and South Africa. There’s two State of Origin matches, one for each cisgender. We have two women’s internationals, featuring Samoa, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, as well as the NRL’s Pacific Invitational with the same teams, except that famously Pacific nation, Lebanon, plays in lieu of New Zealand. The Kiwis will instead be facing down arch rivals Mate Ma’a Tonga to avenge their 2017 World Cup embarrassment in the opening fixture of the new Oceania Cup.
(Also worth a look this weekend in boring old club football: London Broncos vs Hull Kingston Rovers in a relegation battle. Kickoff 4.45AM AEST on Friday)
It’s a feast of rugby league and significantly more tantalising than what the NRL has served up lately. Here’s a bit of insight into each.
As I explained in Rating the Origin teams, I don’t have any good metrics available for representative contests. Except that’s not quite true because we have the Pythago World Ranking system, which is an Elo rating system I created after the 2017 World Cup.
Unlike other long term, class rating systems, PWR is margin based, which means that country’s rating will only go up if they beat the spread set by PWR. This is helpful, because if it was only result based, we’d miss nuance in the way that national squads are developing. That said, PWR moves relatively slowly in response to individual match results, with Tests being rated higher than normal internationals (as decided by the good people at Rugby League Project) and World Cup matches from 1995 onwards being rated higher again. I’ve updated it twice since first creating it, most recently after Greece’s defeat of Norway in a World Cup Qualifier in May, and made a couple of tweaks. The pre-war nations – Australia, England/Great Britain, Wales, France and New Zealand – start on 1500 and nations that started playing post-war start on 1250. The ratings are based on the scorelines of over 1500 matches for full national teams, so does not include games involving Maori sides, PM XIIIs, England Knights, etc. The full ranking is on the ratings page (Great Britain and nations with fewer than ten games are not ranked) but the ratings show more or less what you’d expect:
2021 Men’s World Cup Qualifier
My Tip: Cook Islands over South Africa
The Cook Islands Kukis are 22nd in the world, with a rating of 1241 and an all-time record of 17-30-2. The South Africa Rhinos are 35th with a rating of 1150 and a record of 6-19. Purely in Elo terms, a 90 gap is equivalent to a 63% winning percentage without accounting for a home ground advantage.
Worse for the Rhinos is that even though Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is “injured”, the Kukis can field a few fringe first graders, like Brad Takairangi and Troy Dargan, and fill the rest out with capable Intrust Super and Canterbury Cup talent. Other than the QCup’s Frei brothers and two players apparently in the Manly and Cronulla systems, the Rhinos are fielding players from League One, the Brisbane A-grade and the Illawarra Districts, which is not encouraging.
The winner will enter into a Baseketball-style play off system that will hopefully conclude prior to the kickoff of the next World Cup. The next step for the winner will be a trip to Jacksonville in June to face off against the United States for a place in 2021’s tournament. While a South Africa or US appearance would be ideal for rugby league as a whole, I think we’ll see the Kukis in Jacksonville, if not in England.
You will apparently be able to stream the game here.
Women’s State of Origin
My Tip: New South Wales
I’ll be perfectly honest and state up front that I’m not an expert on women’s rugby league and unfortunately, there’s not much of a sample size to go on stats-wise to help inform my view. That said, the state of play seems to be this: the NRLW split the Queensland, NSW and New Zealand rep teams among four clubs, with the Blues being the most heavily diluted between Sydney and St George Illawarra. The predominantly-Maroon Broncos were stronger than the Kiwi Ferns at the Warriors and the half-strength-Blues at the Roosters and Dragons. That meant Brisbane went undefeated, which would be a tick for the Maroons’ relative strength, especially under the captaincy of gun Ipswich halfback Ali Brigginshaw.
Conversely, if we look at the results of the recent Women’s National Championship, both NSW rep teams made the grand final, with the Queensland sides playing for consolation prizes. This is what also happened in last year’s championship before the Blues comfortably outclassed the Maroons at North Sydney Oval.
I’m banking on a repeat for the Blues and will spend much of the night debating whether it’s sexist to not call a Blues player a flog because she’s a woman or if to do so is straight up misogyny. Perplexing.
My tip: New Zealand over Tonga
For me and many like me, this is the centrepiece of the weekend. This is why:
If you don’t feel like running through a wall after that, you may want to check your pulse because you may be dead inside.
Tonga are the world’s fourth best with a rating of 1486 and an overall record of 40-29-3. New Zealand are one of the powerhouses of international rugby league, having been there since the start and winning the 2008 World Cup. After defeating Australia last year and then embarking on a tour of Britain, the Kiwis sit second in the world, on 1590 with a 154-198-15 record. The 94 point headstart spotted to the Kiwis, with a home ground advantage, gives them a 69% chance of winning the game.
Even with Andrew Fifita suspended, Tonga probably has the best forward pack that it is possible to assemble. The platform will be laid with some force. The biggest problem is their halves with a selection of Lolohea, Asiata and Havili playing in the spine. Ideally, Fainu, who has been having an excellent season, will be getting on the field sooner rather than later, relieving one of the, shall we say, less in form spine players.
New Zealand are rolling out their usual squad with good forwards – admittedly their most talented have defected to Samoa and Tonga – reasonable quality backs – again some of their best are defectors – but most importantly, a world class spine featuring Brandon Smith, Shaun Johnson, Benji Marshall (he’s still got it, folks!) and Roger Tuivasa-Scheck. And I think that’s where the difference will lie. Tonga’s lack of skilled playmaking is going to prevent them from getting from a built platform to putting points on the board.
I’d like Tonga to win but it will probably be New Zealand prevailing.
My tip: Fiji over Lebanon
I’ve consulted a map several times to determine where Lebanon is because I could have sworn it did not border on the Pacific Ocean. Geographical anomalies aside, the Cedars come into this game, missing a couple of important players (Josh Mansour and Alex Twal being the two most notable) and the support of their home federation, which Robbie Farah appears to be waging a one man war against. I assume it stems from a lack of payments from the last World Cup but it’s not really clear what’s going on.
Fiji have a winning record, just, of 35-34-2 and a rating of 1467, putting the Bati in fifth overall. Lebanon are just behind in sixth (1434) with an astonishingly good 31-14-4 record. The ratings suggest Fiji has a 55% chance of winning this game but I don’t think the line ups suggest that it should be that close. For one, Robbie Farah is Lebanon’s halfback because Mitchell Moses is too busy not being selected for New South Wales, I guess. Miski, Mannah, Lichaa and Robinson aside, I don’t recognise any other names. Those names that I do recognise aren’t what I’d describe as stars of the game.
Having said that, Fiji’s spine may as well have scoliosis, it’s that wonky. Thankfully, the Bati resisted the urge to pick Jarryd Hayne but it has left them bereft of talent in the backline, with guys like Kevin Naiqama plying their trade in the UK. The key difference will be up front. Kikau, Kamikamica, Sims and Bukuya will lay enough of a platform that their teammates should just need to fall over the try line, assuming that Kikau doesn’t just go himself.
My tip: Samoa over PNG
This is an interesting match up. The Kumuls have been steadily improving over the last ten years, especially now that the Hunters in the Queensland Cup have effectively become a feeder team for the national side. The premiership winning side of 2017 has been plundered by overseas clubs, resulting in some of the PNGers getting different and valuable experience. Last year’s victory over Fiji was unexpected and joyously received. The 2019 Kumuls vintage features top line Intrust Super Cup talents, like Edene Gebbie, Luke Page and Nixon Putt, some of the struggling Hunters, like Moses Meninga, Terry Wapi and Junior Rau, but partnered with James Segeyaro and Kurt Baptiste from the NRL. The lack of Boas brothers is slightly concerning but while Ase is out of form, Watson is probably required to turn up for Doncaster.
Samoa had a disastrous World Cup (no wins but still managed to play in the quarter finals) but up until then were the form Pacific team. A few defections, notably of Marty Kapau and Jamayne Isaako, has helped boost their stocks. Between them, Anthony Milford, Chanel Harris-Tavita, Jarome Luai and Junior Paulo, Toa Samoa looks very good on paper with a 1-17 of NRL players. Indeed, they would likely be able to take it to Tonga but it’s not to be this time around.
Papua New Guinea are currently ranked seventh on 1388 and an unfavourable historical record of 28-55-2. Samoa are eleventh (1317) but have a noticeably better record of 26-35-2. The Kumuls, without a home ground advantage, have a 60% chance of winning the game on their PWR ratings. PNG will want to avenge their previous meeting with Samoa in the 2013 World Cup, where both teams went in fairly even and Samoa left with a 38-4 win.
My tip: New Zealand over Samoa
My tip: Papua New Guinea over Fiji
Neither Samoa nor Fiji made an appearance at the most recent women’s World Cup, with the six spots being occupied by Australia, NZ, England, Canada, PNG and the Cook Islands. That does not give me a lot of confidence in Fetū Samoa, even though Warriors 2nd rowers Luisa Gago and the lengthily named Masuisuimatamaalii Pauaraisa (Sui for short, I believe) are named, or the Bulikula, who are fielding Canecia Sims, the fifth and least known of the Sims family.
The PNG Orchids will field NRLW veteran, the Broncos’ Amelia Kuk, who helped dismantle her home country in a pre-season game last year, along with a couple of players from the SEQ and Sydney competitions to bolster a predominantly domestic squad. The Kiwi Ferns will be pretty much at full NRLW level. Look out for Teuila Fotu-Moala to kill some people.
I would ideally like to create a Pythago Women’s World Ranking to complement the men’s system, it’s actually difficult to find the results of women’s internationals. There’s probably only a handful of them but Rugby League Project is yet to make a start on the women’s game and the RLIF website is useless.
Men’s State of Origin
My tip: Queensland
Since game 1’s comparatively poor performance, NSW have made some changes that make sense, e.g. bringing in James Maloney to give the side more attacking options than just Cook/Tedesco up the middle and starting a now healthy Tom Trbojevic. Then there are others that don’t, e.g. bringing in an extremely average Daniel Saifiti to replace the Australia’s best forward. Now while dropping Latrell Mitchell is an idea I can get behind, I don’t think starting Jack Wighton in his place is a brilliant gambit, especially after he threw the game losing intercept.
Having said that, while I would love to join the pile on of Brad Fittler and his bong-rippingly-strange selections, it’s exactly the kind of thing that people fixate on right before their state gets steam rolled (see also: Stubbs, Bradley C). It would not surprise me in the slightest to be shaking my damn head at the Maroons’ ineptitude as we take the series to Sydney for a decider but the head says Queensland should get it done in Perth.
Remember that the two lineups were evenly matched, outside of the hooker matchup. With Klemmer’s absence a bigger loss for NSW than Arrow and Ofahengaue’s for Queensland, the forward pack battle starts to favour the Maroons. Between Hunt, Munster, Cherry-Evans and Morgan, Queensland have fielded enough halfbacks to have more than enough attacking options. The balance of the back five remains tight but the key will, again, keeping a lid on Tedesco and Cook and forcing Maloney to play wider. Oates, Chambers, Morgan and Gagai (Origin edition) can contain Ferguson, Wighton, Trbojevic and Addo-Carr (unless he gets into open space). If Fittler plays loose with his rotations and there’s more effective finishing on Walters’ side, sealing the series is well within the Maroons’ reach.
My tip: Jamaica over United States