A sold-out home crowd will greet the Papua New Guinea Kumuls for their Rugby League World Cup opener against Wales in Port Moresby.
It’s the first time the tournament has been staged in the country, where rugby league is the undisputed number one sport.
PNG skipper David Mead said it means everything to them being able to play in front of their home supporters.
“Whenever we put the PNG colours on we’ve got just a huge amount of support from our family network – inside of PNG and outside as well,” he said.
“I know it means a lot to the players – it means a lot to myself – that we get this opportunity because not many people do and I know the boys are really excited at being a part of the World Cup and representing our country”.
All three of the Kumuls pool matches will be played at the National Football Stadium, which is also home to the Queensland Cup winning PNG Hunters.
Head coach Michael Marum said with only one of them, Wales or Ireland advancing from Pool C to the knockout rounds, every game is important.
“We have to top our pool in order for us to proceed into the quarters.
“Wales haven’t played a trial game and we don’t really know what they’re going to come up with” Marum said
“We’ve lost to them twice: the last time was back in 2000, where we lost to them in the quarters in England and also in 2007 we played a test match against them, so those are the records that were against us.”
Fiji open their World Cup campaign tonight against the United States in Townsville.
The Bati are also in must-win territory, with only one team from Pool D progressing to the quarter finals.
The Fijians were beaten by both Papua New Guinea and Australia during the International Tri Series in Suva a fortnight ago.
Coach Mick Potter said they have big aspirations but aren’t looking beyond tonight.
“If you slip up in your first game and you go in with any complacency or anything like that you find yourself out of the World Cup,” he said.
“I don’t like the old cliches but we certainly have to be mindful that we need to win our first game so I’m not jumping the gun, I’m not setting any targets but I know we’re very ambitious but I think it would be foolish for me to come up with anything publicly,” Potter said.
“Although our aspirations are high”.
Samoa are the top-ranked Pacific nation at fifth in the world but face a daunting first up clash against New Zealand in Auckland tonight.
Toa coach Matt Parish is predicting the most competitive World Cup yet.
“World Cups come around every four years. It’s unfortunate that you’ve got to wait that long to play top level nations but this is our opportunity to show what we’ve got,” Parish said.
“It’s obviously the other Pacific nations too, it’s their opportunity to show what they’ve got and I’ve got no doubt that this World Cup is certainly going to toss up a few surprises”.
The Kiwis camp was rocked by a number of defections of players to the Tongan squad, including star forward Jason Taumalolo.
But despite a tumultuous build-up for New Zealand, Parish isn’t taking anything for granted.
“The Kiwis this time two years ago they were the number one in the world.
“They’ve still got so many great players in their team: you look at the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Johnson, they’re marvellous players and they’ve got some talent right across the board, so we’re under no illusion how tough it’s going to be,” he said.
“But, in saying that our preparation has been good, we’ve competed well against them in the past and I’ve got no doubt if we play well we’ll compete this weekend”.
Meanwhile expectations are sky-high for Mate Ma’a Tonga, following the additions of players like Taumalolo and former Kangaroo Andrew Fifita to their World Cup squad.
The Kingdom are being talked up as a tournament dark horse but coach Kristian Woolf said they would be naive to look beyond Sunday’s clash against Scotland, who pipped them by two points at the last World Cup.
“They had a really good campaign in 2013, they also had a really good Four Nations last year so what I do know is that they’ve got a coach who obviously gets an effort out of them and they’ve certainly shown some character over the last couple of years, in terms of how they play and being really competitive on the back of that,” Woolf said.
“There’s obviously a result for them on the weekend (a 50-14 defeat against the NSW Country Under 23s) that wasn’t flattering but the majority of their better players didn’t play in that either and I know a guy like a Danny Brough makes a huge difference, with his kicking game and his direction and the little bag of tricks that he’s got so we’re expecting a really tough challenge actually”.
Australia started their World Cup defence with a hard fought 18-4 win over England in Melbourne overnight.
The Kangaroo’s struggled to convert their territorial dominance leading 8-4 at the break before pulling away in the closing stages.
England also suffered a major blow with injury to star forward Sam Burgess.