Race to the world cup

FIJI are eyeing a $1.1 million cherry on top of one of the strongest sides in their history as competition for Australian spots heats up and the other international heavyweights get some much needed good news.

World Cup Scout brings you all the latest ahead of the end-of-season showpiece event.

$1.1 million man set for Fiji

Jarryd Hayne is shaping up as the most expensive player to ever turn out for a second-tier nation, with the NSW Blues star predicting he’ll be snubbed for green and gold honours come Cup time.

Hayne has struggled to reach the dizzying heights he is capable of since returning from his NFL experiment, and sees himself lining up for Fiji at the World Cup given the abundance of talent Mal Meninga has to choose from out wide.

The 29-year-old took up a lucrative $1.1 million option with the Titans for 2018, but after an underwhelming Origin series Hayne says he has fallen down Australia’s backline pecking order – a shock admission given the confidence he has in his own ability.

“It’s been great to play both for Australia and Fiji,” Hayne told reporters this week.

“It’s obviously up to the coach, but I’m probably looking at Fiji at the moment given the amount of talent Australia’s got.”

Contenders for centre spots in the Kangaroos World Cup squad include Hayne, Will Chambers, Josh Dugan, Cameron Munster, Blake Ferguson, Dane Gagai and Jarrod Croker.

With Darius Boyd, James Tedesco and the evergreen Billy Slater all vying for Hayne’s preferred fullback role, Fiji is calling for the two-time Dally M winner.

Hayne qualifies for the Bati through his father, former first grader Manoa Thompson, and has previously credited his 2008 World Cup stint with Fiji for turning his life around off the field.

Bati are building

Still on Fiji, they’ve got the makings of a serious side in the works according to big man Kane Evans.

With Hayne sizing up a return to the Bati and the likes of Suliasi Vunivalu, John Sutton, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and the Sims brothers all potential starters, Fiji are considered a good chance of matching their 2013 semi-final appearance.

“Playing in the last World Cup was a career highlight. I’d love to play this year,” Evans told foxsports.com.au.

“It’s a special feeling playing for your country.

“We should have a strong team. We have so many talented outside backs like Suliasi Vunivalu who can play, throw in Jarryd Hayne and John Sutton and it’s an exciting team.”

Evans can’t get a start in a strong Roosters pack at NRL level, playing all but five of his 68 career games off the bench.

While he’s bound for Parramatta next season where he wants to nail down a spot in Brad Arthur’s run-on 13, he wants an early crack at the World Cup.

“I want to start, it’s a goal of mine,” Evans said.

“I look at someone like (fellow Fijian and Knights prop) Daniel Saifiti. He’s only 21 and he’s starting. The kid is a beast. He’s going to be something special.

“I’m 25 and I’ve only started five times for the Roosters so I want to keep proving myself.”

One Fijian that won’t be on deck is Eels flyer Semi Radradra. He will be on a plane as soon as Parramatta’s season wraps up to join French rugby powerhouse Toulon, whose latest Top 14 campaign starts in August.

Just what the doctor ordered

A bit of welcome injury news has landed for the World Cup’s heavyweights across the past week, not least under the pump Kangaroos forward Trent Merrin.

The Panthers lock had initially been looking at two months on the sidelines with an MCL tear suffered in a round 19 win over the Warriors.

But Merrin’s recovery is ahead of schedule and he is eyeing a return for Penrith in round 24 against the Raiders as the club makes a late bid for the finals.

If the 27-year-old can’t get back before the regular season’s end it could place tremendous pressure on his Australian Test spot with Penrith no certainties to play finals football.

The Panthers still sit two points adrift of eighth-placed St. George Illawarra, and if Merrin wasn’t to see NRL action again in 2017 it would leave the PM’s XIII trip to Papua New Guinea as one of his few chances to push for selection.

Merrin once again missed the NSW Origin cut this year and faces hot competition for a World Cup start from those that starred in the recent series such as Josh McGuire, Josh Jackson, Wade Graham and Dylan Napa.

Big guns in the clear

For New Zealand and England, Shaun Johnson and Sam Burgess are both expected to take their places as key cogs in the respective campaigns.

Johnson went down in the same game as Merrin with what was at one point feared to be a season-ending ACL rupture, which has since been downgraded to a posterior cruciate ligament injury — with a recovery time between six to eight weeks.

While the star half is unlikely to play again for the Warriors this season, the Kiwis will be able to call on him in a much-needed boost considering veteran forwards Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor already ruled out on disciplinary grounds.

“I’m walking OK at the moment and don’t need crutches so I’m taking it day by day but it is feeling good,” Johnson said.

“I’m not able to run for the next couple of weeks. I’ll see Stew Walsh, our surgeon, in a couple of weeks and then we’ll go from there.

“They reckon about six to eight weeks and I should be right.”

Burgess, meanwhile, has been cleared of a broken rib suffered in the Rabbitohs loss to Cronulla last Friday.

What has now been diagnosed as a rib cartilage injury will be a week-to-week proposition for the English powerhouse, who will have enough time to rest up after the regular season to be right for the World Cup.

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