Before the World Cup had started, if a Rugby League fan had predicted that Papua New Guinea - a small island nation with a national team that was created as late as 1975 and which has only once successfully proceeded past the group stages of the World Cup - would beat England - a country whose first international was played in 1904 and who are currently ranked third in the world - he or she would have been laughed at. Now, however, with the tournament entering its knockout stages and with PNG racking up some impressive scores whilst England continue to struggle, it could well become a possibility.

Finesse and power

The PNG teams of the past have often been criticised for being "all brawn and no brain" with a quite obvious lack of creativity and structure, but, alongside an ever-growing brute strength, they now have the flair and skill to go with it. The likes of Lachlan Lam and David Mead have thrilled the passionate and vociferous PNG crowds with their trickery and finesse, and, when combining this with the hard-hitting and powerful running from those such as Garry Lo and Stanton Albert, PNG has become a force to be reckoned with. PNG, unlike in previous competitions, have found the right balance to cause any team a whole host of problems; for this reason, England cannot afford to take the Kumuls lightly.


Going into this fixture, PNG has won three out of three, topping their group in outstanding fashion. A 50-6 thrashing of an inexperienced Welsh side, a tensely fought 14-6 victory over Ireland that, just a few years ago, the Kumuls would have lost and a 64-0 annihilation of the USA has left Rugby League supporters frothing at the mouth and the Kumuls' merry band of supporters dreaming of the unthinkable.

But, is it really unthinkable? England themselves have been far from inspiring with only a first-half battering of France kindling any possible hopes that England can win the whole tournament. Head coach Wayne Bennett has tinkered with his 17 since the first game and, since then, there has been a lot of debate about what is actually England's best team.

A twelfth consecutive defeat against Australia in England's opening match did little to warm the cockles and, a stuttering win over impressive minnows Lebanon left the cockles practically ice cold.

A Luke Gale-Gareth Widdop partnership has seemed lacklustre, the absence of Zak Hardaker has disrupted the team considerably with neither Jonny Lomax nor Stefan Ratchford appearing comfortable on the big stage, whilst Bennett's perseverance with Josh Hodgson at No.9 over James Roby and John Bateman in the centre has left even the most ardent England supporter scratching their heads.

However, with England's quarter-final passage confirmed, Bennett changed things around against Les Tricolores and reaped the rewards with a 36-6 victory.

Gareth Widdop, Kevin Brown and Luke Gale combined masterfully at Nos.1, 6 and 7 respectively whilst James Roby demonstrated - through his dynamic running and quick distribution - why he is streets ahead of Hodgson at No.9. Mark Percival also showed up well in the centres as did Mike McMeeken and Scott Taylor upon making their first World Cup appearances. With this in mind, Bennett seems to have found the right combinations that may well prove to be too strong for PNG, that is if he sticks with the same team. If Widdop returns to the halves, PNG will perhaps fancy their chances; after all, he failed to break any pots at the standoff in the first two games and instead seems more at home at the back.

England did, however, lose their way in the second half against France as George Williams replaced Luke Gale in the halves, but also because - as Kevin Brown eluded to in his post-match interview - Bennett played the second forty as a forward battle in preparation for the PNG fixture. England appeared uncomfortable playing this way and need to replicate more of their first-half showing against PNG than their second. England, at all costs, cannot let the brutal PNG pack draw them into a forward battle because PNG - right across the board - are just too strong, instead, the attacking potency and flair demonstrated so well against the French in the opening half an hour has to be the way to go.

Melbourne instead of Port Moresby

Before the match even kicks off, however, PNG is at a disadvantage. The Melbourne Rectangular Stadium will host the quarter-final, rather than the National Football Stadium of Port Moresby. Instead of nigh-on 15,000 Papua New Guineans cheering their heroes on, there will likely be more England fans than PNG fans that make the trip to Melbourne. Rather than being treated to a cultural feast of the island nation's history and traditions alongside a rich cacophony of colour and noise, the PNG players will simply have to make do with 10,000 neutrals entertaining themselves with the Mexican wave and a few thousand English ex-pats trying to sing in time to 'God Save the Queen'.

On a poignant note, the people of Papua New Guinea simply cannot afford the travel and the accommodation necessary to be there this weekend. As nearly 40% of the country lives below the national poverty line, many will face the painful decision of watching on television or listening on the radio. That is if they have a TV or radio in the first place; coverage, for instance, is limited mainly to Port Moresby and the provincial capitals with isolated and scattered settlements and villages unable to access such broadcasts. As such, the majority of the nation - a nation which is the only one present at the World Cup to have Rugby League as its national sport - will miss out on the chance of watching their beloved team possibly make history.

For England, Melbourne could not be a better destination. Having already played their opener against the Kangaroos at the rather uninspiringly named Rectangular Stadium, the England side will be used to the pitch and will not have to find their feet as much as the PNG team who have played all their games in Port Moresby so far. Melbourne also boasts one of the largest communities of British ex-pats in Australia - a feature of support which could inevitably help the England side.

Whatever happens this weekend, it promises to be a cracker of a tie; the so far unstoppable Papua New Guineans against the so far disappointing English could throw up a match which provides more rollercoasters than Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

And, despite Super League sponsors, Bretfred, believing England will be too strong as they install England as 1/6 favourites, the quarter-final does have the potential to cause the biggest upset in Rugby League history.