Photo op: Meninga brings evidence for Kangaroos defense

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) Wayne Bennett didn’t want negativity or the focus of attention being on England missing captain Sean O’Loughlin and hooker Josh Hodgson for the Rugby League World Cup final against Australia.

So the master tactician threw in a decoy with comments in a local newspaper on Friday, criticizing Australia for slowing down the rucks and highlighting what he described as three-man ”piggy back” tackles.

Australia coach Mal Meninga bought into it, bringing photos to hold up at his pre-final news conference of England players using the same techniques in their narrow semifinal win over Tonga, and also practicing it at training.

The pair has an association going back decades to when Meninga played for teams which Bennett coached. Meninga was hired to coach the Kangaroos in 2015, when the selection panel wasn’t considering anyone who was a full-time head coach with a club in the National Rugby League.

As a result, Brisbane Broncos coach Bennett, the most successful coach in Australia, took on the England job part-time in a bid to promote international rugby league. His first goal was to get England into a World Cup final for the first time since 1995. He’s achieved that. The next one will be tougher – winning a first title for a British team since 1972.

Australia has won 10 of the 14 World Cup titles to date, and appeared in three other finals. But the Australians haven’t won the tournament on home soil since the 1970s, losing the 2008 decider to New Zealand in a shocking upset here in Brisbane.

”We don’t want to make it about me and Wayne,” Meninga said of the newspaper criticism and his own response to it. ”Banter is good and if Wayne feels he needs to add to it, I am happy to return serve.

”It’s part of the theater of big games. It all adds to the drama of a World Cup final.”

England is a clear underdog, particularly after O’Loughlin was ruled out Friday with a leg injury and after a tournament-opening 18-4 loss to the Australians.

But Sam Burgess, who took over the captaincy and will move into the backrow, said that put all the pressure on the Kangaroos.

”It’s definitely not on us. Nobody has given us a chance and that’s completely fine,” Burgess said. ”We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity as a group to do something pretty special.”

Burgess, who has played for South Sydney in the National Rugby League on either side of a stint playing rugby union for England, said losing O’Loughlin was ”obviously a huge loss” but he was ready to fill the gap.

”It’s a job I don’t take lightly. I love being in this position,” he said. ”I don’t think it gets much better than the World Cup final and it will be a special moment, although it’s kind of bitter-sweet if I’m honest.”

He’ll be running out against Australia captain Cameron Smith, who has already won just about every available accolade in the game this year including an NRL premiership with Melbourne and international player of the year award.

The Australians have a settled combination, with the Melbourne Storm spine of Smith, fullback Billy Slater and halfback Cooper Cronk also working in tandem for the Kangaroos.

Smith and Slater were part of the team which lost the 2008 final in Brisbane to New Zealand, and are determined not to let that happen again.

”I can guarantee you Billy and I aren’t looking at 2008 in terms of any sort of redemption,” Smith said.

The defending champion Australians have only conceded 16 points in five games so far in the World Cup, and Smith said the Kangaroos’ patterns or tactics wouldn’t be changing much in the wake of Bennett’s comments in the media about them slowing down the play of the ball.

”Every big game I’ve played and Wayne has been the opposition coach, something has made its way into the media,” Smith said. ”We haven’t put any special emphasis on our tactics in defense. We’ve done what every other team has done in this tournament – we won’t be changing that tomorrow.”