Ex-England ace Jason Robinson reveals Papua New Guineans are the Rugby League’s TOUGHEST opponents

Rugby League is a tough sport and there are no tougher competitors in the game than the men of Papua New Guinea, according to former England and Great Britain ace Jason Robinson.

The ex-Wigan man should know. He won 19 international caps in League and has come up against opponents from scores of countries in a career that spanned 16 years and both codes of rugby, but in his estimation, the Pacific Islanders are the hardest of them all.

Papua New Guinea promise to be a surprise package at the Rugby League World Cup, which will open on October 15 at St James’ Park, when England take on Samoa.

‘They do not always look big, but if you run into any Papua New Guinean player, then more than likely they will just pick you up and dump you,’ says Robinson. ‘It’s like running into a car.’

The tournament, which will see male, female and wheelchair athletes competing simultaneously in their respective competitions for the first time, has the potential to be one of the best in the World Cup’s 88-year history.

As well as Papua New Guinea, Tonga, New Zealand, Samoa and England will be out to beat the odds and steal Australia’s crown.

Robinson played in the Rugby League World Cup for England in 1995, losing in the final to Australia, before winning the Rugby Union World Cup in 2003, beating the Wallabies Down Under.

‘I can’t wait. I have been lucky enough to do it as a player. And now I am lucky to be watching it,’ said Robinson, who is an ambassador for the Rugby League World Cup and sponsors Vodafone.

‘I wish I was 20 years younger and able to play. There will be some greater atmospheres.

‘There are the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions. There has never been a World Cup in any sport where they have all run at the same time. It is great.’

Robinson relishes these tournaments for testing the best players to their limits, but also for discovering new talents and experiencing the different styles teams bring the tournament.

This year’s competition, delayed for 12 months as a result of the Covid pandemic, brings together 32 teams across the three competitions.

In the men’s tournament, which will culminate in the final on November 19 at Old Trafford, Australia are, as usual, the hot favourites to lift the Paul Barriere trophy.

However, Robinson says there are a host of credible challengers this time around: Greece are set to become every fans’ second favourite team; Papua New Guinea will thrill with their all-power game and the home crowd could just roar England to victory. The ex-England flyer tells Sportsmail what he is looking forward to at RLWC22.

Hard-hitting Papua New Guinea

Nicknamed the Kumuls, Papua New Guinea are going to be a handful and they are planning on springing some surprises.

Rugby League is the national sport on the Pacific Island nation and the players are as passionate as their fans.

They are also among the toughest and strongest competitors Jason Robinson has ever faced.

‘Papua New Guineans are so strong. I don’t know what it is about them. Normally you would associate [that strength] with the Tongans and Samoans, but the Papua New Guineans have it, too.’

A popular Papua New Guinean player during Robinson’s era was Stanley Gene, whose playing career encompassed Hull KR, Hull FC, Huddersfield, Bradford and Halifax.

‘He was not tall, not the biggest, but he was the strongest player, pound-for-pound I have ever played against,’ recalled Robinson.

‘In Super League players used to tell you, ‘Man, don’t run into Stanley Gene’. He was just so strong, tough and resilient.’

Gene was capped 16 times by the Kumuls, which translates as ‘birds of paradise’, in a 17-year career and recently left the coaching staff of Hull KR.

The Kumuls enjoy extraordinary support, too, which gives their players an extra edge.

‘It will be the first time some of those players have come to the UK and they will be buzzing,’ said Robinson. ‘It is their national sport. It is an opportunity for them to create something. If Papua New Guinea can do well, they will go back as heroes. Real heroes.’

In June, PNG recorded an impressive 24-14 win over Fiji, which has further boosted the confidence of squad and fans.

‘For the players who put on that jersey it means a lot more to them than a lot of people understand,’ Leigh half-back Lachlan Lam told LoveRugbyLeague.com.

‘We’re definitely capable of turning over teams that people wouldn’t expect us to.

‘Last time we made the quarter-finals for the second time ever and we won all three of our pool games. This year we will be looking to go a little bit better than that.’

Papua New Guinea are currently ranked fifth in the world.

Australia Can Be Beaten

Australia may be favourites (again), but they are beatable, insists Robinson. However, they have so many good players that defeating them is a daunting task.

‘You could name about 100 good players for Australia,’ chuckles Robinson, but he picks out full back James Tedesco and half-back Daly Cherry-Evans as two key individuals.

Australia have contested 14 of the 15 Rugby League World Cup finals since 1954, winning 11 of them. And Robinson admits the Kangaroos have quality in every position and will ‘outmatch anybody’.

‘They like confrontation, there will be a lot of sledging and banter,’ he said. ‘They come with a confidence that most teams don’t have. They expect to win. That is where the battle is for everyone else.’

But the former England winger believes that the Kangaroos can be tripped up.

‘Sometimes teams give them too much space,’ he said. ‘Even the best teams can be put under pressure. They can make mistakes. You have to move up, close the space, you cannot hang off them.

‘When you are defending you have to punish them, be physical. Let them know it will not be easy for them. When they take the ball in, it will not be on their terms. There are lots of battles you have to win.

‘And do not give the ball away. Play in the right areas of the field. It is difficult, but that is what World Cups are.’

England Must Believe

Great Britain have won the Rugby League World Cup on three occasions, but England are yet to taste victory in a final since the home nations started competing individually in 1995.

England were losing finalists that year, when Robinson played in a 16-8 defeat to Australia at Wembley, and in 2017 when the Kangaroos won again, 6-0, in Brisbane.

But this time, Robinson hopes that home advantage and a charismatic and experienced coach in former Wigan boss Shaun Wane will make the difference.

‘Of course, England can win,’ Robinson told Sportsmail. ‘Whenever you mention Rugby League, Australia will always be up there as favourites. But under Shaun Wane, he will make sure those guys will be ready to go.

‘It is a home tournament, which is massive. I was lucky enough to play in 1995 and we got to the final. It was one of the best experiences of my life.’

England have some battle-hardened players in their ranks. Among them, NRL stalwarts, second row Elliott Whitehead, 32, who has made 154 appearances for Canberra Raiders and prop Tom Burgess, 30, who has amassed 207 matches for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, as well as captain and full back Sam Tomkins, 33, who plays for the Catalans Dragons.

‘There are quality players in the England team, but it has to bring out the best in all of them,’ added Robinson. ‘England have a good chance. I am massively excited. A World Cup can change your life,’ said Robinson, who lifted the Rugby Union World Cup with England in 2003.

The Fans

The British crowd is going to be critical for the success of England and the other home nations.

UK fans are more vocal than those in other countries, even Australia, where Rugby League has a bigger following.

‘When the crowd are behind you there is no better feeling in the world,’ said Robinson. ‘The crowd can make a massive difference. When the crowd is going, you feel as strong as a bear.

‘It makes you feel invincible. Why would you just run 30 metres and go head first into three guys who are 6ft 4ins and 17 or 18 stone? It is the buzz of the crowd that makes you feel like you are the strongest man in the world.

‘It can be that roar from the crowd that gets you through the next five minutes when you have your backs to the wall.

‘But you have to use that advantage. As a player, you affect them. Do an amazing run or a big hit and you get them up out of the seats. You want them almost running at the side of you.’

England will hope the fans can spur them on as they did in Euro 2022, when the nation united around the Lionesses.

Tonga Are Stronger…

The New Zealanders, second favourites and currently ranked number one in the world as result of the shake-up caused by the Covid pandemic, will give Australia a run for their money.

But it is Tonga that have caught the eye of Robinson among a number of outside bets.

Tonga are a force to be reckoned with and their squad features stars from the NRL and Super League, including a host of players who have elected to play for their heritage nations rather than Australia and New Zealand, where they were born or brought up.

Tonga may have narrowly lost to England 20-18 in the semi finals of the 2017 tournament, but they recently overtook the host nation in the IRL rankings and sit second.

Coach Kristian Woolf has named a 38-man provisional squad, which will be trimmed to 24 for the competition.

‘They have some big boys, some big hitters,’ said Robinson. ‘We have seen at previous World Cups; Tonga have been really difficult to beat. You can see that being the case this time. They will cause a few upsets.’

Tonga are favourites to top their group, which includes Papua New Guinea, Cook Islands and Wales and are expected to face England or Samoa in the quarter finals.

Woolf believes Tonga, who beat Australia in their last competitive match in 2019 but lost to New Zealand in June, have a chance if they play to their potential.

‘The team we are going to put together for Tonga, that is something to get excited about and look forward to because I think we’ve got a squad that’s going to be very hard to beat,’ said Woolf, who is also coach of Super League side, St Helen’s.

Here Come Samoa!

England face Samoa in the first game of the tournament and it will be a huge test for the host nation.

In fact, England coach Shaun Wane has claimed the Three Lions go into the game as ‘massive underdogs’.

A clutch of established NRL players have also switched allegiance from Australia and New Zealand to represent their Samoan heritage.

‘That must be one of the strongest squads in the World Cup,’ claimed Wane in an interview with LoveRugbyLeague.com.

Samoa are ranked seventh in the world, but the listing has been complicated by the Covid pandemic. The Samoans have not played a Test match since 2019.

‘It is a big game,’ admits Robinson. ‘In an ideal world you would like an easy one, but that is not going to be easy. Samoa could cause so many teams an upset, especially on that opening day.

‘They are a team to watch. They have got a lot of players to choose, whether on the island or the heritage players. They have a lot of good players.

‘From their point of view, most people will turn up to that first game and want England to win. England can put a marker down and show the rest of the world what they are about, but the flipside is Samoa can go there and think everyone is going to back England.

‘First game, all eyes on the opener, let’s go. They love the confrontation. They love putting in big hits and taking players out. If Samoa beat England on the first day the whole tournament could be changed.’

You Gotta Love Greece!

Greece is set to become everyone’s second favourite team.

The nation is competing in its first Rugby League World Cup and no team has fought harder to earn their right to be here.

Until last month, Rugby League was banned in Greece after the fledgling Greek Rugby League split in 2012, and the competition was reduced to just four teams. Under Greek law, there needs to be at least 20 clubs for a game to be classed as a federation sport.

In practise it meant matches could not be advertised or promoted. Incredibly, games were banned and had to be played in secret with the police in hot pursuit.

‘The story is just ridiculous,’ says Robinson. ‘They had to play under the radar. It is unbelievable. It is like they were shunned. They had to play all times of the day or night.

Games were raided and broken up, according World-Wide Sports Australia. For a World Cup qualifier against Malta in 2018, the Greek team kept the location of the match under wraps until the last moment, only revealing it to the driver of the opposition team bus on the eve of the fixture.

‘They will not have the strongest team but crowds will get behind them and adopt them.’

Jason Robinson is an ambassador for the Rugby League World Cup and sponsors Vodafone. He is supporting the Pride of Your League competition, which aims to celebrate volunteers in the sport’s grass roots.

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Sport Ex-England ace Jason Robinson reveals Papua New Guineans are the Rugby League's TOUGHEST opponents