While the 2018 #NRL Pre-Season is still a few weeks away, there's a bunch of warm-up clashes happeni...
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Unlikely pairing looms as match of the weekend
Arguably the poorest performers at the World Cup four years ago, Ireland will be out to improve their fortunes with a much stronger squad. While the attacking threat of Pat Richards and Damien Blanch may no longer be present within the Irish ranks, a far stronger forward pack should ensure a more resolute defensive performance, along with greater opportunities for the sides attacking threats. Fielding a side made up predominantly of European-based players, the likes of Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Tyrone McCarthy have a wealth of experience to draw upon, while halfback Liam Finn proved in the years following the last World Cup that when given an opportunity in Super League he possesses the skills to cause plenty of headaches for opponents. With the likes of Shannon McDonnell, James Hasson and Api Pewhairangi returning to Australian shores having sought opportunities overseas, Ireland will be looking to use the tournament as a means of making in-roads for future success.
Surprising many with their tournament showings in 2013, Italy will be hopeful of progressing beyond the group stage as a result of a squad boasting a number of established threats. Former Italian representative turned coach Cameron Ciraldo will be looking to the likes of Paul Vaughan, Daniel Alvaro and Nathan Brown to follow on from their impressive NRL seasons, while the halves pairing of the experienced Terry Campese and rookie Jack Johns should see the Azzurri create plenty of chances to keep the scoreboard attendant busy. Having played in the centres four years ago, the progression made by James Tedesco in becoming one of the elite fullbacks in the NRL will provide Italy with an attacking threat far greater than any minnow nation in the tournament. Unquestionably talented enough to play for the Kangaroos, Tedesco has shown in his application to Italy that his focus remains on performing to his potential, which if realised, means bad news for Ireland.
Who to watch: Having featured for England at the last World Cup, Wigan hooker Michael McIlorum will be looking to capitalise on his experience to lift Ireland back to the tournament play-offs. Boasting over 200 games in Super League, the 29-year-old will be hoping to form an effective combination alongside halfback Liam Finn to pave the way for the Wolfhound's resurgence following a lacklustre showing in the Northern Hemisphere four years ago. With the Irish forward pack among the most underrated of the minnow nations, look for McIlorum to direct play and cause the Italians plenty of headaches.
In what shapes as his final hurrah as a professional rugby league player, Terry Campese will line up for the Azzurri having opted to sit out of the World Cup four years ago. Earning a call-up after a strong season with Queanbeyan in the local Canberra competition, the former Raiders captain will provide a seasoned hand for the Italians that may prove to be the ingredient needed to lift the side into the Qualifying Finals. While much of the focus has centred on the inclusion of NSW speedster James Tedesco, the class of Campese should ensure Italy make the most of their chances in attacking territory.
My tip: While the Irish players may not be household names down under, there's plenty to cause their opponents trouble, but with Italy boasting a singular talent as remarkable as James Tedesco it's hard to go past the Azzurri. Italy by 8.
1. Scott Grix 2. Shannon Mcdonell 3. Ed Chamberlain 4. Michael Morgan 5. Liam Kay 6. Api Pewhairangi 7. Liam Finn 8. Brad Singleton 9. Michael McIlorum 10. Kyle Amor 11. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook 12. Oliver Roberts 13. George King 14. Tyrone McCarthy 15. James Hasson 16. Joe Philbin 17. Anthony Mullally
1. James Tedesco 2. Mason Cerruto 3. Justin Castellaro 4. Nathan Milone 5. Josh Mantellato 9. Ryan Ghietti 7. Jack Johns 8. Paul Vaughan 14. Colin Wilkie 10. Daniel Alvaro 11. Joel Riethmuller 12. Mark Minichiello 13. Nathan Brown 15. Brendan Santi 16. Shannon Wakeman 17. Jayden Walker 18. Joey Tramontana