Autumn is the time for international rugby to grab the spotlight of world sport once again. Media outlets will watch as the Southern Hemisphere’s finest test themselves against home nations over the next several weeks. Although Rugby Union will grab most of the headlines, its sister sport promises to be a competitive tournament of pure and ferocious drama as it unfolds over the next month. The Four Nations is a biennial tournament that alternates between hemispheres. It is Rugby League’s answer to Rugby Union’s Six Nations.
The three giants of the sport, New Zealand, Australia and England, are joined by a fourth qualifying team from the hemisphere that hosts the tournament. This year’s tournament is being staged at various stadiums throughout England, and by virtue of winning the 2014 European qualification tournament, Scotland will compete for the first time. The tournament takes a round robin format, with teams awarded two points for a win, one for a draw and nothing for a loss. Once this stage of fixtures is completed, the top two sides in the table will compete in a final at Anfield, Liverpool, on 20 November.
New Zealand has time and again proved itself to be the country at the pinnacle of world rugby, currently boasting the number one ranked side in both codes. The squad which landed in England to compete in the Four Nations is one worthy of this accolade. Captain Jesse Bromwich leads the front line with pace and power, and half-back Isaac Luke provides creativity for the attacking line. He will no doubt shine over the coming weeks. However, the 2013 World Cup finalists have some significant absentees. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who lit up the tournament with his pace and flare, scoring eight tries in six games, will no doubt be a massive loss. An ACL injury sustained back in April ruled him out for the second half of the NRL season. All-round sportsman Sonny Bill-Williams has not been selected for the tournament by virtue of his focus on boxing, and his spectacular offloads will be missed. Regardless, expect a fiery haka and equally exciting performances from a side more than capable of winning the tournament. Their opener against England on 29 October will be one of the stand-out games.
Australia arrives as the reigning world champion after its 34-2 dismissal of New Zealand in the 2013 final at Old Trafford.The Kangaroos have long dominated Rugby League, winning 10 of the 14 World Cups held since 1954, and although they are currently ranked as second best, they sent a clear message to New Zealand by winning their 15 October warm-up friendly 26-6. Australia’s side is full of stars from the NRL, most notably Jonathan Thurston, deemed by many to be the best player in the game right now and possibly ever. Alongside him, Greg Inglis offers plenty of experience and try-scoring nous. Australia will want to continue its dominance of the sport, and an opener against Scotland should prove to be a try-fest. Moreover, the 77 percent win rate that the Aussies currently hold over England will fill them with confidence going forward into that fixture at the Olympic Stadium on 13 November. Australia is the firm favourite for the title.
England will be buoyed by home advantage and its test series victory over New Zealand last year. New head coach Wayne Bennet will be hungry for his first win since his takeover in February. Crucially for England, Sam Burgess has returned to the team in his new role as captain. Although his conversion to Union brought mixed success for both Bath and England, Slammin’ Sam is certainly England’s key man in this tournament. Monstrous tackling ability, with speed and power to match, makes him a major asset for England. Expect Burgess to lead from the front and punish defences with his direct running. Despite a disappointing domestic season with the Leeds Rhinos, winger Ryan Hall will be looking to add to his formidable try scoring record: 26 in 27 appearances for his country. The experience of forward James Graham and flare of Kallum Watkins will be vital components if England is going to be successful over the next month.
One could be forgiven for suggesting that Scotland will be the whipping boys of the tournament. No qualifying side has ever won a Four Nations match, and Scotland does not look like it will be ending this run. Ranked ninth in the world, Scotland’s squad is drawn from the NRL in Australia, the Super League and the Championship in England. Among these, there are 10 uncapped players who could be selected to face Australia in the tournament opener. The ones to watch on the Scotland team are NRL stars Lachlan Coote, Euan Aitken, Luke Douglas and Kane Linnett, alongside Huddersfield Giants’ veteran goal kicker Danny Brough.
So why should viewers tune in to the BBC’s coverage of rugby’s other code? Well, without stoppages for scrums and lineouts, Rugby League is a faster, more intense physical contest in which high-scoring games and spectacular comebacks are commonplace. The format of play is similar to American football’s system of downs (teams have six tackles worth of possession before they are required to kick the ball), but without the pads and hours of adverts, Rugby League is 80 minutes of pure adrenaline rush. The match-ups promise to be tight, tense and exhilarating affairs (with the possible exclusion of the matches featuring Scotland) and the Four Nations offers no better way to become acquainted with this fantastic sport.