The rugby league World Cup opens on Saturday with easily the standout match of the group stage between host England and tournament favorite Australia at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.
Both teams will be looking not just to put down a marker for the tournament but also to secure, in theory, an easier route to the Nov. 30 final in Manchester. Here are five things to know about England vs. Australia:
ENGLAND REELING ALREADY: Talk about puncturing pre-tournament optimism. England is in disarray before the World Cup has even started, both on and off the pitch. First, the team slumped to one of the biggest upsets in international history, losing 15-14 to World Cup debutant Italy in a warm-up match in Salford on Saturday. While England coach Steve McNamara has enjoyed unprecedented player access before a World Cup, including holding a training camp in South Africa, Italy had only had two training sessions together.
"It was a huge shock to the system but I think as a group we'll learn from that," England captain Kevin Sinfield said. Things got worse midweek when second-row forward Gareth Hock was thrown off the squad for drinking alcohol and missing a swimming session after the Italy defeat. Hock said his axing was harsh. "For missing a 10-minute swim — I think it's out of order really," Hock said.
AUSTRALIA PLAYER ROBBED: Hock isn't the only player to have endured a forgettable buildup to the World Cup. An unnamed Australia squad member, believed to be Josh Papalii according to reports in Britain and Australia, was robbed after taking money out of an ATM machine during a night out on the Kangaroos' first day in Britain.
NRL game development manager Andrew Hill said the Australia squad was later warned "of a sting which targets partygoers in the Manchester area after a player lost a sum of money in suspicious circumstances."
BROTHERS IN ARMS: For one family in particular, this is set to be the most memorable of World Cups. Sam, Tom and George Burgess were all called up to the England squad for the tournament, while another of the brothers — Luke — is on standby.
And they are all known by the Australia squad as the four siblings play for South Sydney in the NRL, where they enjoy celebrity status among the rugby-loving public along with their mother, Julie. "It's a cracking feeling to play professional sport in the same team," said Sam Burgess, the most famous and talented of the brothers. "All the family will be watching and will be so proud."
Sam was the first to move to Sydney, in 2010, following an offer from the club's co-owner, actor Russell Crowe. The other three Burgesses arrived in successive years. Crowe knows a story line when he sees it.
LAST CHANCE FOR AUSSIE STARS?: For three of Australia's stars, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater, this World Cup is likely to represent their last chance of getting their hands on the sport's greatest prize. All three, widely considered to be greats of the modern era, turned 30 this year and Australia coach Tim Sheens acknowledged they are unlikely to be around for the next global tournament in 2017.
"You'd have to say that the next World Cup in four years will feature a different-looking Australia side," Sheens said. "I brought to the attention of the league that there will be a so-called changing of the guard somewhat."
All three have been voted the world's best player in the past six years and have won a string of honors in the NRL and with Queensland. The only gap on their resume is a World Cup. Thurston, a brilliant goalkicker and assured scrumhalf, was the top point-scorer in the 2008 tournament.
CRUCIAL MATCH: Such is the nature of rugby league at international level that the winner of Saturday's curtain-raiser is likely to cruise through to the final in five weeks' time. That's because whoever finishes top of Group A is almost certain to avoid New Zealand, the only other credible title contender, at the semifinal stage. The loser will likely have to get past the Kiwis to reach the final. Ireland and Fiji are the other teams in Group A.