Bozo's lessons fuel Meninga's reborn Roos

The buzzword for Australia at this Rugby League World Cup could have been anything, but the phrase which coach Mal Meninga continues to mention is "passion".

It is an emotive word, particularly for Meninga, who represented his country with distinction on four separate Kangaroos tours.

Nobody quite understands the green and gold jersey like Meninga but over the last couple of years some of that reverence, it can be argued, has been lost.

After all, Australia's last game prior to this World Cup was a 2019 defeat to Tonga.

It was the first time since 1978 that the Kangaroos had lost to someone other than England/Great Britain or New Zealand.

It's a blemish which stung Meninga and led to questions about Australia's place at the top of league's food chain.

Their tumble to fourth in the world rankings has fuelled that fire, as has the fact so many players have pledged their allegiance to Samoa or Tonga.

In England, the Kangaroos are greeted with disdain by fans and administrators over their decision to withdraw from the tournament in 2021.

On this tour - 12 months later than originally scheduled - Meninga has set about restoring the prestige of the Kangaroos jersey.

Australia have yet to lose at this tournament and they will hope to seal a 12th World Cup title against Samoa at Old Trafford on Saturday (Sunday AEDT).

Samoa might be the underdog story filled with colour and vibrancy, but Meninga says his side more than match their passion and pride.

"Our guys put their hands up to play for Australia," Meninga said.

"We are no less passionate than any other nation when we pull on that green and gold jersey.

"We still play with the passion and the commitment that is conducive to being an Australian."

With 13 debutants on this tour, Meninga has had to lean on lessons from his own experience to mould them into a team which will start at Old Trafford as strong favourites.

Meninga worked closely with the late Bob "Bozo" Fulton on his many international appearances and those lessons have helped this iteration of the Australian side come together quickly and successfully.

"Part of Bozo's aura was that he had a good sense of fun," Meninga said.

"I kind of hope I bring a bit of that to the group. It is not all business.

"I think I got that from him. I think Bozo knew how to bring representative teams together."

Fun, it may be, but Meninga recognises there is a need for his side to be serious and win this weekend.

Victory would mean he becomes the first Kangaroos coach since Fulton to win two World Cups.

He describes the expectation of being a successful Australian team as a "burden", reflected in the fact the Kangaroos have lost just one World Cup final (2008) in the NRL era.

Many - including bookmakers who have Samoa priced at $7 - expect Meninga's men to easily account for the Pacific nation.

Matt Parish's side are the first new nation into a World Cup final in 34 years and are likely to be greeted with support from the English fans, who bought tickets expecting their nation to be there.

Parish describes Samoa as a "little dot in the Pacific", so if that tiny nation can knock off the hosts after losing 60-6 to them in the tournament opener, then why not Australia too?

"That was the idea when all the boys made the pledge to play for Samoa," said Stephen Crichton. "We didn't want to compete, we wanted to make it to the top."

The irony of course will be that so many of this Samoan side have been born, raised or developed in Australia schools, junior clubs and NRL sides.

Samoans around the world have had street parades championing their players and the fact they have reached their first ever final.

"We've gone global and it means a lot for our boys to do it for the motherland and the people of Samoa," Crichton said.

"They've sold out of flags everywhere, they've gotten pretty crafty and just knitted red and blue together."

AUSTRALIA'S 2021 WORLD CUP RECORD: group stages - def Fiji 42-8, def Scotland 84-0, def Italy 66-6; quarter-final - def Lebanon 48-4; semi-final - def New Zealand 18-16.

SAMOA'S 2021 WORLD CUP RECORD: group stages - def by England 60-6; def Greece 72-4, def France 62-4; quarter-final - def Tonga 18-16; semi-final - def England 27-26.