Rugby League World Cup: Who are the headline acts – and who might make the difference?

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Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester Date: Saturday, 19 November Kick-off: 13: 15 & 16: 00 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer and online; live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; live text on BBC Sport website & app.

Defending champions Australia are aiming for more glory in the men’s and women’s World Cup final double-header at Old Trafford on Saturday.

The Jillaroos take on New Zealand in the early game at 13: 15 GMT, looking to equal the Kiwi Ferns’ record of three triumphs in the women’s tournament, having won the past two.

Meanwhile, the Kangaroos, who have won eight of the past nine men’s World Cups, face a Samoa side who knocked out England to reach their first final.

Every kick, tackle and try will be shown live on BBC One, while all the drama and excitement from both finals will also be captured by commentary on Radio 5 Live.

But who are likely to be the headline acts? BBC Sport looks at two key battles – and two more vital partnerships.

Nathan Cleary v Jarome Luai

Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai
Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have won successive NRL titles at the Penrith Panthers

A head-to-head encounter between Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai stands out among several intriguing sub-plots to Australia’s meeting with Samoa.

The half-back combination is regarded as the heartbeat of NRL Grand Final winners Penrith Panthers but they will be on opposing sides for the first time since their junior days.

And there will be no room for sentiment or friendship once the action gets under way, with Luai known for his ability to antagonise his opponents.

“He talks a fair bit but that’s what makes Luai so good,” said Samoa team-mate Jaydn Su’a. “He is a competitor and he doesn’t like to lose. Until the final whistle blows, he will be into you.”

Luai’s mercurial running and handling skills have taken him to three man-of-the-match awards in five games and he is a dangerous albeit familiar opponent for Cleary, who has emerged as a first choice for Australia coach Mal Meninga during the tournament.

Still only 25, Cleary’s exceptional kicking and passing game has led to comparisons with Australian greats of the past such as Andrew Johns, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk and he will be keen not to give an inch in this pivotal duel.

James Tedesco v Joseph Suaalii

James Tedesco & Joseph Suaalii
James Tedesco and Joseph Suaalii are team-mates at the Sydney Roosters

While Samoa men’s captain Junior Paulo is relishing going toe-to-toe with his Parramatta Eels team-mate Reagan Campbell-Gillard in an explosive and bruising forwards clash, fireworks will also be expected from the backs.

Australia captain James Tedesco, arguably the best full-back in the world, lines up directly opposite Samoa’s teenage prodigy Joseph Suaalii, a club-mate and the man tipped to take over that role one day at the Sydney Roosters.

“He’s [Suaalii] such a freakish athlete,” said Kangaroos stand-off Cameron Munster. “He’s got so much ability, he can do anything and I’m scratching my head that he’s still only 19.

“He’s got a big future, but hopefully not on Saturday. We’ll try our best to nullify him but he has no fear when he’s running the ball back.”

Can Amber Hall and Mele Hufanga inspire New Zealand?

Amber Hall & Mele Hufanga
Amber Hall and Mele Hufanga were both named in the women’s team of the tournament

Having narrowly lost 10-8 to Australia in the group stage, the Kiwi Ferns will head into Saturday’s final brimming with confidence after an impressive semi-final victory over England.

In that 20-6 win in York, the destructive power of prop Amber Hall and rugby union convert Mele Hufanga came to the fore. And while Australia have clearly taken note, they are likely to tailor their approach to try to wear down the duo and nullify their threat.

Australia co-captain Ali Brigginshaw said: “We definitely have plans [for them]. We have played them before – and credit to them, they played well, but as a team we can expose that a little bit.

“We have watched a fair bit of them and how we can work them over and that’s the plan for Saturday. We didn’t play our best and we still won that pool game. Defensively we were strong but we have a lot more in attack and I’m excited to see how that goes.”

Will Ali Brigginshaw and Isabelle Kelly be key for Australia?

Ali Brigginshaw & Isabelle Kelly
Ali Brigginshaw (left) was part of the Australia squad that won the previous two Wold Cups

With the vastly experienced Brigginshaw and Sam Bremner having both been part of Australia’s successful World Cup campaigns of the recent past, there is plenty of experience for coach Brad Donald to call upon against New Zealand.

Brigginshaw was player of the match in the 2017 final victory against the Ferns and will be crucial in controlling the pace, tempo and ball control of the Jillaroos in attack.

Meanwhile, speedy centre Isabelle Kelly, who has won virtually every domestic and international honour going, will be looking to maintain the rich vein of form she exhibited with a semi-final hat-trick in the 82-0 win against Papua New Guinea.