AFTER an all-Queensland NRL grand final, and more than a decade of dominance from the Maroons at State of Origin level, rugby league fans will now have the first “all-Queensland” Rugby League World Cup final.
Of course, the showpiece finale of the exceptional World Cup tournament will be played out between Australia and England at Suncorp Stadium.
But perhaps the most intriguing battle in the game’s head-to-head clashes will be in the coaches’ boxes when Mal Meninga and Wayne Bennett square off for bragging rights and league’s international crown as Test football’s kings.
The showdown between Queensland’s two greatest coaches brings a unique dynamic to the World Cup final, with the pair sharing a long history, mutual respect and a bitter rivalry.
Bennett is the most successful club coach in rugby league history, with eight premierships to his name – first with Souths Magpies in 1985, six with the Broncos (1992-93, 1997-98, 2000, 2006) and then in 2010 with the Dragons.
Meninga on the other hand is the undisputed colossus of Origin coaching, stepping in as Maroons coach in 2006 as Queensland faced its darkest hour and leading the Maroons to an almost mythical nine series wins in 10 years – including eight in a row.
Meninga’s coaching success with the Kangaroos is following a similar path – the former Test captain now unbeaten in 12 straight internationals since taking over as Australian coach.
Their relationship goes back 40 years to when Meninga first came under Bennett’s tutelage at the Queensland Police Academy in Brisbane.
In the years since, they have worked together as player and coach with the Magpies, Raiders and Maroons.
But their friendship fractured over a year ago, when Meninga was appointed to the Kangaroos job that Bennett made no secret about wanting.
That “fracture” turned into a full-scale eruption 12 months ago, when Meninga launched a scatching attack on Bennett leading into the Four Nations tournament, accusing the Broncos coach of undermining him because he was jealous “Big Mal” had landed the Australian job.
At the time, a furious Meninga renounced his friendship with Bennett, and the perception Bennett was his mentor.
Those stormy waters were calmed when the pair met to sort out their differences during the Four Nations, and both men claimed before the World Cup began that any damaged bridges had been repaired.
The bad blood was put down to a “misunderstanding”.
While hostilities between the two may have cooled in the 12 months since, there is no doubt both Meninga and Bennett will be desperate to lay claim to the title of “World Cup-winning coach” in the Suncorp Stadium decider.
Bennett led England to the decider after a nail-biting 20-18 semi-final win over World Cup fairytale story Tonga in Auckland.
But the Poms’ task of upsetting the Kangaroos has been dealt a serious blow, with hooker Josh Hodgson heading for a knee reconstruction and nine months out of the game after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Australia’s path to the World Cup final was far less dramatic, but no less impressive, with a 54-6 thrashing of Fiji in the semi-final at Suncorp Stadium.
The Kangaroos’ form is only being overshadowed by the individual brilliance of their winger, with Queensland’s Valentine Holmes destroying the record books on his way to the final.
Holmes scored five tries in the quarter-final against Samoa, then backed it up with another six tries in the rout of Fiji – giving him a remarkable 11 tries in his past two Tests and a total of 14 from his 10 international appearances.
Holmes’ strikerate is no less impressive in the furnace of Origin, with the winger bagging four tries in his first two games for the Maroons this year, including a hat-trick in Game III at Suncorp Stadium.