And so we are left with six. Six teams to battle it out for the men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cup trophies this weekend.
Australia will meet Samoa at Old Trafford on Saturday, after the Jillaroos and Kiwi Ferns do battle beforehand in the women’s final. And on Friday night in Manchester England and France will duke it out for the wheelchair title.
Of the six, five were favourites to get there before a ball had even been kicked.
In the women’s section Australia and New Zealand are the two dominant forces in the world. The majority of their players come from the elite NRLW competition.
There have been five women’s World Cups before this one and the Kiwi Ferns and Jillaroos have won all five between them – New Zealand three and Australia two. With the two nations grouped together in Group B, it was always going to be set up for an all-Antipodean final.
The thinking was that England may pose some threat in the semi-finals, and they did to the Kiwi Ferns in parts of their game on Monday night. But New Zealand proved too good and these neighbours will duke it out in another final.
In the wheelchair section France and England are the top two countries. There have been three wheelchair World Cups before this one, in 2008, 2013 and 2017, with England winning one and France two.
In both 2013 and five years ago it was twice an Anglo-Gallic final, with the French winning both. Back on home soil, the English are seeking to break that streak this Friday.
And on to the men’s. Despite the world rankings, the Kangaroos remain the preeminent superpower. They have won 11 of the 16 tournaments that have been played, won them all since 1972 apart from 2008. They have been in every World Cup final since 1957.
While they entered this tournament ranked fourth in the world, they have showed their class in one-side victories over Fiji, Scotland, Italy and Lebanon. Only the Kiwis, in a titanic tussle at Elland Road, have pushed them hard.
Some have claimed this Australian side was weak compared to previous outfits, with no Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Darren Lockyer or Andrew Johns to call on. But the likes of James Tedesco, Josh Addo-Carr, Cameron Munster, Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Murray have shown their class.
And then we get to Samoa – they have been the clear surprise packet of this World Cup. They came into this tournament with lots of hype and potential about what they could do, but also some doubts on whether they could put it all together.
Toa Samoa were ranked seventh before the World Cup, behind New Zealand, Tonga, England, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Formed in 1986, the Pacific nation had never reached a World Cup semi-final until this year, let alone a final.
At the last World Cup in 2017 they didn’t even win a single game, losing to Tonga and New Zealand, and drawing with Scotland. At that time some former players claimed the current side had lost respect for coach Matt Parish.
Then in 2021 it was reported that a large group of current and former Samoan players had co-signed a letter to the Samoan Prime Minster calling for Parish’s axing. The Johns brothers, Andrew and Matthew, along with Sonny Bill Williams appeared keen to take over.
But Parish kept his job and Samoa have been boosted by NRL and State of Origin stars such as Brian To’o, Josh Papali’I, Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Junior Paulo electing to play for their country of heritage. All five could have been in the Kangaroos squad, instead they will seek to sink the Kangaroos at the home of Old Trafford.
Samoa have made history by getting their first-ever semi-final, beating England for the first time and getting to their first-ever final. Their rise has been player-led, with the Penrith Panthers’ awesome foursome and the likes of Anthony Milford leading the way. There is no doubt the Polynesian nation has some world-class talent to rely on.
The three countries with the most NRL players – Australia, New Zealand and Samoa – unsurprisingly reached the final four of the men’s tournament. Now Toa Samoa will be out to do what no one has been unable to do in 15 years, beat the Kangaroos in a final.
Samoa’s journey up the rugby league food chain has been both surprising and remarkable. Victory on Saturday will add another amazing chapter in an already fantastic story.