As Australia has cruised through the group stages of the Rugby League World Cup, it has been easy to think the Kangaroos are on an unstoppable march to yet another title.
It has felt inevitable at times, especially when the Kangaroos were gorging themselves on points in the early stages of the tournament.
There have been some spectacular tries, and Mal Meninga has methodically worked over his squad in an effort to find his best 17.
But we are at the point where everybody, including the Australian players, would love to see the team get into a real battle.
And while positive results are hard to come by when you’re playing the Kangaroos, history shows that if a side can keep it tight, it is in with every chance of knocking Australia off.
Since 2018, the Kangaroos’ average winning margin has been a whopping 43 points, which is to be expected from the best team in the world, and there is no question about their insatiable appetite for points or their ruthless disposition — they are a team utterly without mercy.
But there is another side to that coin. Australia is rarely afforded a true contest, which could make it vulnerable once it faces a team which can keep things a little tighter.
In the eight matches since the 2017 World Cup, the green and gold’s narrowest margin of victory was 18 points.
But both times they were in games that were true contests in the final minutes — against New Zealand in 2018 and Tonga the following year — they lost.
Lebanon, which is one of the tournament’s brightest lights and will face Australia in the quarterfinals, is unlikely to be the team that pushes Australia into deeper waters.
But likely semifinal opponent New Zealand certainly could, as could fellow powerhouses England and Tonga, while a resurgent Samoa would fancy themselves a puncher’s chance at the very least.
The Kangaroos will not be complacent for a moment. As they have rained down hellfire on Fiji, Scotland and Italy, they have been preparing for the harder times to come.
“We’re building for that. We’ve been working really hard on what’s going to be coming for us,” hooker Ben Hunt said.
“We just have to do the little things right: defend well, work hard from the inside, all those things they call one-percenters. Do that and the big plays will come.
“We achieved everything we wanted to in the group stage, but there’s still a few things we can clean up and get better at.
“You get a few tries and you get on a bit of a roll and everyone gets a bit excited and wants a piece of it. You have to keep it tight and keep executing.”
What Saturday morning’s (AEDT) match against the Cedars in Huddersfield will provide is an answer to the halfback debate that has dominated discussions throughout the tournament.
Daly Cherry-Evans and Nathan Cleary have been battling it out for the playmaking role through the group stages and played together in the halves in the win over Italy.
The margin between the two is understood to be incredibly thin. Both have performed well in England, and while Cleary has had the better club season, Cherry-Evans outpointed his New South Wales counterpart in this year’s State of Origin series.
For Hunt, the quality of both players puts Australia in a no-lose situation.
“They’re both fantastic players and worthy of the position. I’m glad I’m not Mal, that I’m not the one who has to make the decision,” Hunt said.
“I thought they were both exceptional against Italy. There’s not much that really splits them. Whichever way Mal goes will be a good decision.”