I jumped the gun not long after the World Cup draw in early 2020 and ran some Monte Carlo simulations of how the tournament might unfold (it was exactly as you’d expect at the time). Then a pandemic happened and a rain of shit followed. The parochial cowards that make up the NRL clubs forced the postponement of the 2021 tournament into 2022, a move that was so 2020.
But we’re finally here and the 2021 Rugby League World Cup kicks off in Newcastle on 15 October 2022 between Samoa and hosts England. Let’s unpack the tournament in some detail.
How It All Works
You can refer to the generalised guide for more context on the Pythago NRL extended universe of metrics. For this, we’re using Pythago World Rankings and a new metric, Paper Strength.
Pythago World Rankings are an Elo-based ratings system for men’s (and soon to be women’s) national rugby league teams. The rankings date back to 1908 and are calculated on every bilateral, Test and World Cup match, respectively increasing weighting of matches based on its importance, between two nations (e.g. excludes NZ Maori or Combined Nations games) that Rugby League Project has listed. The pre-war nations start at 1500 and new nations post-war start at 800. Great Britain and England are treated separately. There’s no penalty for inactivity – a standard weakness of Elo ratings as they assume a certain amount of turnover – so Australia is still the top rated nation, albeit their rating is well down from the peaks through the 80s and early 00s when the Kangaroos actually played semi-regularly (and won).
Player ratings are predicated on a concept called production. Production is the accumulation of counting statistics that correlate with winning – tries, metres, breaks, assists, etc – converted to a single unit. Errors and missed tackles are counted as negative production. For Australian men’s rugby league, production is measured in Taylors and for European men’s rugby league, production is measured in Rismans.
Rismans have been retooled after people got angry that I compared Brodie Croft to wingers and fullbacks – perhaps rightly so, but he still sucks – while ignoring the broad thrust of my argument that all the top rated Super League players are ex-pat NRL washouts, which does not bode well for England’s national team if they’re not as good as those guys.
Players are given ratings for each match based on their listed position and their relative production, which is then compared to the replacement level player to calculate Wins Above Reserve Grade (WARG) for Australia and Value Over Reserve Grade (VORG) for Europe. The nomenclature is distinct to reflect the differences in the datasets; the Super League set is considerably more limited than the NRL or State Cup equivalents. WARG and VORG are both volume statistics, so the more games played, the more opportunity to accumulate WARG/VORG, and so players missing large parts of the season might be under-rated (e.g. Herbie Farnworth).
In looking at squads, I’ve used the 2022 WARG/VORG for each player (and not career, due to the different lengths of the datasets, or projections) and converted it to a universal metric called Paper Strength:
Paper Strength = NRL WARG x 12 + SL VORG x 4 + State Cup WARG
The weightings are arbitrary but based on the 3:1 gap between NRL and Super League used in the GRLFC and the 12:1 gap (i.e. 8.3% winning percentage for a replacement level team) used as the replacement level.
Paper Strength is indicative only and helpful for grouping nations by their squad strength, rather than getting too caught up in specific rankings.
There are obvious limitations. Some squads, like Wales, are constructed primarily of Championship players and we don’t have stats for them. Even if we did and it turned out there was a dozen 1.0 VORG players from that division, it would move Wales up from last to above Italy, Greece and Jamaica but still comfortably lowest rated in their group. Some players, like Tonga’s Isaiya Katoa, played in junior categories for which stats exist but aren’t publicly available. Katoa is likely to be an above replacement level player at NRL level, and certainly in State Cup, and may even be Tonga’s best half option but is rated as having no contribution for our purposes (Brad Alonzo has compiled information for every player under 21 in the tournament).
Moreover, if you’ve read this far down, you’ll be able to rattle off a list of limitations that this kind of statistical analysis has. I’ve been doing this for long enough now that there isn’t a novel argument to be had. If you want to get angry about how the numbers don’t conform to your personal eye test, go right ahead. I’ve laid out my working, it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.
Squads and clubs are as per League Unlimited, except where I found corrections to be made, as of October 7.
Finalists: England / Samoa
Key match: England v Samoa
Unlike the four southern hemisphere contenders, England has something to prove: the arrogant knobends from Australia and their lickspittles are wrong and that Old Blighty, Albion, little old England can hold its own. They will also enjoy a massive home ground advantage in Newcastle, with an expected crowd of over 40,000, and throughout the tournament. Those intangibles should not be underrated and might be enough motivation for England to get over the top of Samoa, especially if Shaun Wane is worth anything like the rep he carries.
The English side will have most of the highest rated players out of Super League – e.g. Welsby, Makinson, Williams and Hall – buttressed with a half dozen NRL players, like the eminently suspendable Victor Radley (who admitted that he probably wouldn’t make the Kangaroos squad on the BCC’s 5 Live podcast, make of that what you will), the shit hot Dominic Young (stolen, at the last minute, from Jamaica) and Herbie Farnworth, returning from a long term injury to the embrace of an England squad that cut him for not attending a Zoom meeting during the pandemic (Brisbane is +10 GMT, if it helps provide the necessary context).
England is ranked fifth on Paper Strength, and that looks right from an eye test as well. While the exact exchange rate between the NRL and Super League may not be entirely scientific, even if the NRL WARG and Super League VORG were rated at parity, that would mean that England moves only slightly ahead of Samoa but stays behind Australia, New Zealand and Tonga. The key to England’s success on the field will be whether or not they can handle the pace of the southern hemisphere nations when they field full strength teams. There’s enough experience in that roster to know what they’re up against, but it’s doubtful whether every man has the engine to go with Samoa, Tonga, Australia and New Zealand. They’ll need to dig deep.
Samoa will also enjoy the massive disadvantage of poor coaching. Rugby League Samoa bafflingly refuse to move on from Matt Parish, despite repeated underperformances. Whether Jarome Luai can handle being the main half – presuming that role does not instead fall to Anthony Milford or Chanel Harris-Tavita, two men equally unsuited to the role – in a representative team without Nathan Cleary is an interesting sub-plot. That Luai/Cleary combination found their limit in the Origin arena and England won’t make it easier on Samoa than Queensland did to New South Wales. Still there’s plenty of world class backs and forwards for Samoa to pick from, although their choesion will be questionable, as a mid-year hitout against the Cook Islands isn’t exactly prime material for steel sharpening steel.
While we should expect a Samoan victory in the tournament opener, it would not be in the least bit surprising for England to stage an upset. For the fans of chaos, it’s hard to know whether to want the arrogant Samoan-Australians upset by the plucky Englishmen or for Luai to laugh in their faces. Irrespective, the result will almost certainly determine who progresses as top seed from this group.
There’s a universe where the coaching of Trent Robinson and a considerably more professional approach taken by France yields a boilover victory against England, which combined with a Samoan win, would knock the hosts out in the group stages. Unless something goes horribly wrong for England, we do not live in that universe, and unless the Samoans overindulge in Doncaster kebabs, it seems unlikey that the French will find a win there. That’s before we consider how the absence of Theo Fages and Romain Navarette will leave huge holes in the team. The Chanticleers are very likely to miss the finals for the second time running but they’ll be back as hosts in 2025.
Greece will be headlined by South Sydney’s starting halfback, Lachlan Ilias. Normally, that would be a sufficiently impressive position to be drawing a player from, that it could turn the tide of the team’s fortunes (see also: Jason Taumalolo, Tonga; Mitchell Moses, Lebanon). However, Ilias is not Taumalolo, or even Moses, and there is very little else for the Titans to find a path to victory unless France are asleep at the wheel. Some credit should be given for the number of domestic players in the squad, who will hopefully benefit from the experience and help to continue build the sport in a country that’s had even more bullshit to deal with than most.
Finalists: Australia / Fiji
Key match: Scotland v Fiji
This is likely to be the least interesting group. None of these nations poses even the remotest risk to Australia, not even Fiji who are only two spots lower on the IRL rankings. If we are lucky, we will see who will be the Kangaroos’ starting halfback moving forward, following in the footsteps of giants of the sport like Ernest ‘George’ Anlezark and Harry Caples. The choices are Daly Cherry-Evans, heroic winner of two upset Origin series in 2020 and 2022 but very much at or past his ceiling in the representative arena, or the recent premiership winner and probable holder of that jersey for the next decade, Nathan Cleary, who has yet to really kick a rep game to death. Neither offer the godlike grasp of the game that their 2017 forebears had.
Fiji did not play their stars but still got blown off the park by England in their warm-up match in Salford. While missing the likes of Kikau running over full grown men like they’re children, or a premiership winning rake like Koroisau, or a damaging ball runner like Sivo, or a potentially competent fullback like Turuva, the disarray on display does not bode well for their coaching. I’m still expecting a saloon passage out of the group stage for the Bati nonetheless.
This does raise the question of whether Scotland can get a surprise win. The Bravehearts won their only previous meeting against Fiji in the 2008 World Cup, 18-16, on the Central Coast. They feature a half dozen Super League players, including generic spine player, Ryan Brierley, the definitional replacement level player, Matty Russell, and heritage second rowers Kane Linnett and James Bell. Between them, Euan Aitken and Souths Logan’s Logan Bayliss, it’s not enough to get particularly excited about their chances and so the answer to the question of a surprise win is probably “no”. At least they’re not Italy.
Italy’s squad is surprisingly thin, with only Nathan Brown the lone major leaguer and even he split his time between NRL and State Cup this year. In fact, no other country relies so heavily on State Cup for its Paper Strength. Italy should start Luke Polselli at fullback after a productive but not outstanding season for the Sunshine Coast Falcons in Queensland Cup. Cooper Johns seems likely to be in the halves and, if his form in for the same Falcons and the Melbourne Storm is anything to go by, is equally likely to be a handbrake at this level. He’ll partner with former Wynnum Seagull and theoretical Rabbitoh, Jack Campagnolo, after he was unable to get a start ahead of the struggling rookie that’s appearing for Greece. There’s some work to be done to either engage with more heritage players and/or build up the domestic scene if the Azzurri are to return for France 2025 ahead of upstarts like Serbia, Netherlands and Norway.
Finalists: New Zealand / ?
Key match: Ireland v Lebanon
The Kiwis will undoubtedly cruise their way through the group stages, 3-0. Like Australia, New Zealand will have one eye on the finals and use the group stage for fine tuning. This is in stark contrast to their previous World Cup performance, where they were knocked out in the quarter finals, captained by an Adam Blair that would lead the Broncos to the spoon, featured Danny Levi at hooker (who has over 50 NRL games with a grand total of 0.0 WARG) and David Kidwell lost his job as coach. Kidwell’s replacement, Michael Maguire, is now free of his NRL obligations and can focus full time on the Kiwis job, a thing that definitely needs doing for a team that has some of the best players the sport has to offer, including Brandon Smith at hooker, Jahrome Hughes at halfback, Dylan Brown at five-eighth and several mobile men-mountains vying for starting spots in the pack.
The battle for the second quarter finals spot is the most intense of any group in the tournament, as the Wolfhounds of Ireland, helmed by the Roosters’ Luke Keary and the Rhinos’ Richie Myler, goes head to head with the Cedars of Lebanon, featuring the Eels’ Mitchell Moses and the Tigers’ Adam Doueihi. Ireland and Lebanon have similar Paper Strengths, eighth and tenth respectively, and separated by only eleven units. Lebanon have a slightly better PWR rating and are three places higher in the rankings. I’m inclined to think Ireland’s greater breadth of major league experience across the roster is going to be the decisive advantage, especially compared to the likes of dopplegangers Abbas Miski and Josh Mansour, but Mitchell Moses, if he puts his ass into it, is pretty goddamn good and could tip it back the other way. It could well be the best group stage match of the World Cup.
Jamaica fills out the group with Huddersfield’s fullback Ashton Golding as the only name of note. Dom Young disappointingly but understandably opted for England. The Reggae Warriors will have a half dozen domestic players, mostly from the Duhaney Park Red Sharks of Kingston, who will benefit immensely from the experience. While miracles do happen, they won’t for Jamaica in Group C.
Finalists: Tonga / Papua New Guinea
Key match: Cook Islands v Papua New Guinea
This was originally pitched as the Group of Death for reasons that are no longer clear through the fog of the coronavirus pandemic but likely has a lot to do with Fox not knowing anything about what they choose to talk about.
Tonga comes in as favourites to win the group. They have a decent pair of hookers in Siliva Havili and Soni Luke that should provide some leadership in the middle. Kristian Woolf, one of the best in the business, has packed out the squad with top notch forwards – can you say “David Fifita reputational rehabilitation?” – and backs – let’s see what and whom Siosifa Talakai can rip through. But Mate Ma’a Tonga still have weaknesses. Human meme Tesi Niu started at fullback in their comfortable warmup win against France, as if we needed more evidence that he doesn’t know where to stand or what to do with his hands on defence. There’s a good chance their halves are Tui Lolohea and Talatau Amone, although they should be looking at Isaiya Katoa. Whether Konrad Hurrell is fit enough to play at this level remains to be seen. Tonga aren’t as consistently strong across the park as Australia and New Zealand, so motivation will be essential. Without the roaring sea of red that propelled the Tongans to the forefront of world rugby league in 2017, we will have to wait and see if Tonga has what it takes to win the damn thing.
If you want to watch 17 identically built guys be Dudes, then may we introduce you to Papua New Guinean football? That’s not quite true, as the Kumuls will blend the Queensland Cup’s Hunters, who have had a played one true home game in the last two seasons that ended in glorious fashion, the Central Queensland Capras, who had one of their best seasons ever in 2022, and a smattering of top line talent, including catch and fall merchant, Souths’ Alex Johnston, the Large Hadron Collider himself, Melbourne’s Justin Olam, and Leeds’ own Rhyse Martin. Lachlan Lam and Kyle Laybutt paired up for victory over Fiji in the mid-season Test and demonstrated the clear value of having players play in position, even if they play for the Townsville Blackhawks and the Leigh Centurions. McKenzie Yei may kill someone. PNG might be the most exciting team in the tournament and while they don’t have the superstars of the other southern hemisphere power but they’ll be up for it and they’ll be dreaming of a semi-finals appearance.
Having said all that, the Cook Islands are sneaky good. There are a surprising number of NRL and Super League calibre players in the squad for the 20th ranked team in the world. While none of them are stars and might struggle to hold down a place in first grade (Esan Masters had a great season for Burleigh) and, in fact, the bottom of the barrel approaches very quickly as you scan down a player list that also contains a Thirroul Butcher and Anthony Gelling, there’s a chance they might be able to run with Papua New Guinea on the day. The Kukis, like the Kumuls, also represent a country where the national sport is rugby league. The winner will get a quarter final berth, possibly against England, possibly against Samoa. It’s pretty hard to overstate how important that game will be to both countries at the time and moving forward into the future.
Wales is also playing and it’s a far cry from the heroics of 1995. Professional rugby union really did a number on the Dragons. Only one player, the Raiders’ Joe Burke, from the two Welsh League One clubs made the cut, which is disappointing. The Olds Brothers represent the only two Brisbane Rugby League players in the World Cup, coming from one of its most historic clubs (Valleys, not Brothers).
Australia and New Zealand is likely to be one semi-final after they easily dispatch the winner of the Lebanon/Ireland fight and Fiji, respectively. While the Bati have made the semi finals in three successive World Cups, and beat the Kiwis in the corresponding fixture in the last tournament, 4-2, surely they can’t go for a fourth semi-final rendezvous with Australia (against whom they have scored a grand total of six points in three semi-finals, while conceding 170). Neither Lebanon nor Ireland have the firepower to combat Australia. The Kangaroos beat the Cedars 34-0 in 2017 and the Wolfhounds 50-0 in 2013 and there’s no reason to think that gap is much closer now, no matter how much Moses or Myler puts his team on his back.
The other semi-final is a little more open, although it is likely to revolve around the foursome of England, Samoa, Tonga and Papua New Guinea. The Kumuls are the weakest on paper but also the most likely to stage an upset on pure intestinal fortitude (see: Papua New Guinea 28 – Great Britain 10 in 2019) and have shown they will not be afraid of any of their potential opposition. If things break right for the Kumuls, they could upset England or Samoa and make their first semi-final ever. A more likely scenario is that England and Tonga replay the 2017 semi in one quarter final. That will probably be won by Tonga while Samoa beat PNG in the other, setting the stage for a massive Polynesian collision. If England manage to beat Samoa in the opening round, then I’d expect them to make amends for the 2019 Lions Tour and we’ll get the Polynesian collision one week early.
From there, it’s anyone’s guess how the rest of the tournament will play out. The winner will probably be whoever survives the clash of the Kangaroos and Kiwis. They will have to have the pack to stand up to Tonga and Samoa but should have enough class in the backline to outplay and outscore them. If England makes the final, I don’t know if the crowd at Old Trafford will be enough to get them home but I can’t wait to find out.