Mal Meninga feels ‘most competitive’ World Cup can be ‘start of something big’

Mal Meninga feels ‘most competitive’ World Cup can be ‘start of something big’

Australia coach Mal Meninga is convinced this year’s Rugby League World Cup will be the most competitive ever and kick-start a bright new era for the international game.

The Kangaroos, who are favourites to win a third consecutive tournament, start their campaign against Fiji at Headingley on Saturday evening, hours after hosts England open against Samoa at St James’ Park.

But having not played an international Test since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the continued emergence of Pacific nations such as Samoa and Tonga, Meninga knows that even reaching the final is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Mal Meninga with the World Cup trophy
Mal Meninga (right) has already won the World Cup as both player and coach (PA Archive)

“It’s the most competitive tournament that I’ve been involved with as a player and as a coach – it’s got so much great depth to it all and I think it’s only going to get stronger,” said Meninga.

“The powers that be need to see the importance of the international game, and I think they do. I think it’s the start of something big, and if everyone wants to jump off the back of this and talk about an international space, I think we can do something special.”

Meninga, who has won the World Cup as both a player and coach, is especially relishing the prospect of playing the Fijians at a sold-out Headingley, and believes the atmosphere will serve to focus the minds of his new-look line-up, which features seven debutants.

Rugby League World Cup 2021 Tournament Launch – Museum of Science and Industry
James Tedesco will captain Australia in their World Cup campaign (Martin Rickett/PA)

Full-back James Tedesco captains a team shorn of four players who featured in the NRL Grand Final earlier this month – Penrith’s Nathan Cleary, Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo, and Parramatta’s Reagan Campbell-Gillard – all of whom are being given more time to recuperate.

“It’s a great rugby league ground and Leeds is a great city,” added Meninga. “I have been there many times on tours, and I know the players will definitely enjoy the experience.

“These guys play in a really strong competition week in, week out, and nearly all of them play in the State of Origin, so I’ve got no problems with their ability to handle it all.

“We talk about the expectation but we don’t let it overtake us. We’ve got a rich history in this game and we want to re-write our own stories and do our families and the people who support us back home proud.”