Australia v England preview

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Australia v England Friday 8:05pm at AAMI Park

Tournament dark horses eye off major scalp.

Of all the teams participating in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, the narrative surrounding Australia is by far the least interesting of the 14 participating nations. Given the wealth of resources and playing talent at their disposal, anything less than a tournament victory will be considered a monumental failure. With New Zealand in the midst of an identity crisis, the challenged posed by the English will likely be the greatest of any opponent leading up to the final at Suncorp Stadium on December 2. Combining a mixture of last year's victorious Four Nations squad and several new faces to ease the imminent transition between the likes of Slater, Cronk and Smith and ensuring continued success, the Kangaroos will endeavour to improve upon their defensive prowess in the World Cup four years ago which saw the side concede just four tries across six matches. In a sign of looking towards the future, coach Mal Meninga has handed debuts to Dane Gagai, Wade Graham and Jordan McLean, while Michael Morgan has been selected at five-eighth as reward for his performances with North Queensland this season.

Having disappointed in last year's Four Nations, coach Wayne Bennett will be out to mastermind the demise of the tournament favourites with a game plan designed around size. Opting for a forward-dominated squad headlined by the decision to use John Bateman in the centres, the challenge for England will be identifying the players required to overcome the class of the Australian playmakers. With Gareth Widdop and Josh Hodgson showing their credentials in the NRL, the responsibility on halfback Luke Gale to replicate his feats with Castleford this season will be integral to the side's aspirations of finishing ahead of their heavily favoured opponents. Building upon their solid win over Samoa in the mid-season test at Campbelltown, look for Ryan Hall to extend his try-scoring prowess, while the inclusion of James Roby off the bench may prove to be telling in the final outcome.

Last RLWC meeting: Group A 2013 - Australia 28 England 20
Last International: Four Nations 2016 - England 18 Australia 36

Who to watch: Having borne the brunt of criticism for his actions in the lead up to the Blues failed Origin decider and the debacle that saw his time at the Dragons end in less than preferable circumstances, the World Cup shapes as Josh Dugan's chance for redemption. Capable of feats of excellence, the 27-year-old has been a standout in the centres for Australia over the past twelve months, with the opportunity to play alongside the world elite in part vindicating his well-publicised contract demands earlier this year. With a series of impressive backs waiting in reserve for an opportunity, the pressure to perform will be evident for Dugan with his recent NRL history making him the prime target for a scapegoat should the Kangaroos fail to meet expectations. However as with Jarryd Hayne in the 2013 World Cup, Dugan may well thrive to become one of the tournament stars in a sign of positive things to come.

In the wake of Kevin Sinfield's retirement from the International arena, England has struggled to identify a halfback capable of complementing Gareth Widdop. With the likes of Matty Smith, George Williams and Kevin Brown working with varying degrees of effectiveness, Castleford halfback Luke Gale appears to be the man with the most potential. Playing a starring role in the Tigers claiming their first League Leaders shield in 2017, the 29-year-old will be hoping to lead the way for England to become the first European-based side to secure a victory over Australia since 2006. An accomplished goal-kicker and adept at nailing a decisive score when needed, Gale may prove to be the unlikely hero on Friday night.

The favourite: With Mal Meninga yet to experience defeat as Australian coach, the Kangaroos are well-backed favourites for Friday's tournament opener.

My tip: While the fixture will be a far cry from the 52-4 bloodbath played in Melbourne between the two sides in the 2008 World Cup, the Australians should have little difficulty accounting for England. Australia by 12.

1. Billy Slater 2. Dane Gagai 3. Will Chambers 4. Josh Dugan 5. Valentine Holmes 6. Michael Morgan 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Aaron Woods 9. Cameron Smith 10. David Klemmer 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Matt Gillett 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Wade Graham 15. Jordan McLean 16. Josh Mcguire 17. Tyson Frizell

1. Jonny Lomax 2. Jermaine McGillvary 3. Kallum Watkins 4. John Bateman 5. Ryan Hall 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Luke Gale 8. Chris Hill 9. Josh Hodgson 10. James Graham 11. Sam Burgess 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Sean O'Loughlin 15. Chris Heighington 16. Thomas Burgess 17. James Roby 18. Ben Currie

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