Two years on from their World Cup exit, England face yet another inquest following their limp performances in this season’s Four Nations.
Looking at the wider picture, this tour will give invaluable experience to a host of young players ahead of what will hopefully be a decent bid at winning the 2013 World Cup on home turf.
Some will point at the raft of injuries that has decimated Steve McNamara’s playing options, with captain Jamie Peacock ruled out long before the tournament even began, and his replacement Adrian Morley injured in the final warm-up game. Add to that the St Helens pair of Kyle Eastmond and Leon Pryce, plus Leeds duo Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire, and you are missing six players who will surely have commanded spots in the first choice 17.
But that said, there was still talent left at home. Martin Gleeson, probably one of our few genuine world class players of recent years, was ignored, seemingly a scapegoat for the disappointing World Cup campaign, despite him finding fine form in Wigan’s end of season championship run-in. Danny Brough, the Scotland scrum half who made himself available for the country of his birth earlier this year, was ignored, despite his excellent kicking game being something England could have found valuable in both their defeats on tour so far. If the tour was primarily about experience, why leave Richie Myler at home, surely someone who McNamara will have in his plans for 2013.
However, are England paying the price for doing their best to improve the international game?
The introduction of first a French, and then a Welsh, Super League club has helped improve the make-up of European rugby league, with Wales’ growth indicated by their recent success, over France, in the European Cup, earning them a place in next season’s Four Nations.
The inclusion of these expansion clubs was supposedly to help the growth of rugby league, and thus strengthen England’s bid to defeat Australia, by generating stronger opponents in the northern hemisphere. However, is it merely dragging England down to a level where eventually it would be feasible for them to be beaten by France and Wales on a regular basis? Would competitive England and Wales matches automatically mean England move closer to Australia?
Probably not, and maybe the reason why, is because Australia, the biggest nation in the world of rugby league, do not seem to be doing much to help the spread of the game. Their refusal to let go of their grip of the greatest game reflected by the refusal to appoint neutral referees to test matches – something of relevance this weekend, considering the many criticisms of Tony Archer’s performance against England, despite the fact there can be no doubt he had no impact on the result.
While England are trying to give a foot up to the likes of France and Wales, Australia are more than happy to keep the rest at arms length.
I don’t profess to know the solution, but perhaps it’s time for a worldwide, unified strategy to improve the standard of international teams, rather than the RLIF having to rely on the forward thinking of the RFL in introducing expansion sides to their league to help.
Two French teams in the UK leagues is surely a logistical nightmare for the league and its clubs, let alone the fans, with masses of money each season now thrown at travel across the channel, either way, every single week. Perhaps in hindsight, the French experiment would have been left alone, and instead a second Welsh team could now be included in to Super League, enabling more opportunities for the increasing number of young Welsh players, as well as providing a feasible location for the raft of talented young English players, who now find themselves trapped at the top end of the Championship, owing to the lack of promotion/relegation opportunities, and also because of the surplus caused by an overseas based team full of French players and imports, as well as the still import-heavy Crusaders outfit.
England’s position on the international scene is something of doubt at the moment. I read on Twitter this week a comment from a leading member of the rugby league media, that the 2013 World Cup could be make or break for international rugby league from an England point of view. Supposedly the make-up of Super League is to improve the national team, and if these improvements aren’t seen, it’s doubtful that fans will accept the fact that England will never compete with Australia and New Zealand, and instead will be dragged down to play the less established, albeit improving, nations such as France and Wales.
But, looking ahead to next weekend, England must rescue their tour with a comprehensive victory over Papua New Guinea. It makes you wonder whether the expansion to the Four Nations came too soon, as a result of impatience from the powers that be. Neither France or Papua New Guinea have put up much of a fight, and it will take a monumental effort from Wales for them to get close to any of the other three next season.
But for all the negativity in this post, let’s not forget what a huge success the European Cup, in particular, has been this season. The game is growing in various places in the world, and we’ve got the Atlantic Cup in the USA coming up later this month. What is needed is a unified strategy which has the backing of all of the nations of the world, including Australia, and some patience, to make sure that it works out alright in the long term.