Australia and New Zealand ready for a delicious World Cup semi-final | Rugby League World Cup 2021

It is arguably the most delicious semi-final in Rugby League World Cup history, and the Australia and New Zealand managers believe they have the quality to book their place in next weekend’s final with victory in Elland Road on Friday night.

The two nations that have won the last nine World Cups battle it out in Leeds, with a place in the final against either England or Samoa, who meet on Saturday, on offer for the winner. It is rare for the two heavyweights from the sport’s antipodes to meet in a semi-final, but with Australia slipping to fourth place in the official world rankings, largely due to their lack of desire to play in the international league of rugby since the 2017 World Cup, only one of the Kangaroos or the Kiwis will reach the final.

Only three of Australia’s new teams have played in a World Cup semi-final before. That, coupled with a poor second-half performance against Lebanon last Friday, has left some wondering if there is a rare chink of vulnerability in the reigning world champions for the Kiwis to exploit. But Australia head coach Mal Meninga insists his side are ready for what will arguably be his first real test, having reached the last four so far.

“It’s a big game for Australia because it’s a World Cup,” Meninga said. “We haven’t been in this situation for a long time. It’s a special game, so there’s a natural progression in intensity and you want to prepare for it. Everyone is fully aware of the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead. It’s a great game for this team.”

Australia have only missed one final in World Cup history; in the inaugural edition of the tournament in 1954. Meanwhile, New Zealand survived a big scare against Fiji in the quarter-finals last weekend to reach the quarter-finals, but Meninga thinks that makes the Kiwis a much tougher threat than some expect.

“He probably got his motivation back during the tournament,” he said. “Without being disrespectful, it’s been a pretty easy ride for most of the top teams. That made them realize that they need to work hard and prepare for this. They will not need any motivation to do well. It’s going to be a fantastic game. But this is the first step. We want to play well tomorrow night and win. So we want to go ahead and win the World Cup.”

However, New Zealand manager Michael Maguire echoed Meninga’s confidence in his own group of players as the Kiwis look to make an impact and end Australia’s World Cup dominance. “We have a really strong group and a lot of the players have played in really big games,” he said. “We knew for a long time that this match had to happen to reach the final. We are looking forward to it.”

The winners of Friday’s semi-final will face either England or Samoa in the final at Old Trafford next Saturday. The hosts have made just one change to the side that thrashed Papua New Guinea with Canterbury’s Luke Thompson replacing St Helens prop Matty Lees on the England bench for Saturday’s semi-final at the Emirates Stadium.

Samoa successfully overturned a one-match suspension for their captain, Junior Paulo, at a hearing earlier this week to free him to play in the match. They are expected to make minimal changes to their team as they seek to avenge a 60-6 loss in the opening game at St James’ Park a month ago, and deny the hosts a place in the final for the first time at home since 1995.

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