WC qualifying kicks off
RL minnows battle for World Cup berth
Last Updated: 14/10/11 9:47am
Anthony Minichiello: Leads the Italians
The race to fill the two remaining spots in the 2013 World Cup gets under way this weekend with fixtures as far apart as Philadelphia and Padova.
Russia player-coach Eduard Ososkov knows his side will be battling against the odds when they take on a star-studded Italian team in the opening game of the European zone qualifiers in Padova.
The Azzuri will be led by former Australia Test full-back Anthony Minichiello, while more NRL experience is provided by Cameron Ciraldo, of Newcastle Knights, and North Queensland's Joel Riethmuller.
Ex-Salford forward Carlo Napolitano, coach of Italy, said: "This is the strongest Italy side I have coached. I think it is better than the one that beat Wales last year.
"We had a strong squad in 1999 when myself and Mini (Minichiello) played and we beat France in Carcassonne. But I think the boys from the NRL will raise the bar for the others in the squad."
A change in administration of rugby league in Russia, who played in the 2000 World Cup, means they will be an unknown quantity in the group which also contains Lebanon and Serbia.
"This will be our first experience against professional players and we are yet to see how our men express themselves," said Ososkov. "We will know better after the first match.
"Our goals are high - otherwise there's no reason even being here. To get to the World Cup finals in 2013 would mean a lot, including full recognition of our sport in Russia as well as being accepted by the Russian State Sports Register."
Lebanon meet Serbia in Tripoli on Sunday in the other European group game, while America kick off the Atlantic zone qualifying series against South Africa in Philadelphia.
The Tomahawks' squad contains a blend of domestic and overseas-based players, including four survivors from their attempt to qualify for the 2008 World Cup in Curtis Cunz, David Marando, Mark Cantoni and ex-Wakefield winger Matty Petersen.
US head coach Matt Elliott, the former Bradford boss who was in charge of their last qualifying campaign, said: "We feel like we've got a fairly potent team.
"We have very little preparation time so we're doing what we can with what we've got but I really feel that we'll make the best of it."
The South Africans, who are made up exclusively of domestic players, arrived in Philadelphia fresh from a 36-22 win over Canada in a warm-up match in Toronto.
Rhinos captain Andre Loader said: "The team is looking good and getting their legs back after the long transit to get to Canada."
Jamaica, the other team in the Atlantic group, are in action on Wednesday against South Africa before taking on the Tomahawks on Sunday week.