Another tournament and another disappointing end for England RL. Under new coach Wayne Bennett, much was expected, but the ‘Wall of White’ never really got going in the 2016 Four Nations. So, where did it all go wrong? And was it all doom and gloom?
The Four Nations started for England at the John Smith’s Stadium as they took on New Zealand. Despite not being at their best and looking slightly rusty, they gave the Kiwis a tough game. Losing to a drop goal, and a controversial one at that, to the current holders of the competition is no embarrassment.
But, it was clear from that game that there were some problems with the team. Many missed opportunities, the failure to make the most of the pressure they applied and an unwillingness to take risks ultimately cost them. It was only the first game of the tournament but, in a match that was always likely to have a big say on which of England and New Zealand would reach the final, more had to be done.
The clinical edge needed wasn’t apparent in the Scotland game down at the Ricoh Arena either. England won the game 38-12, but on the whole it was an uninspiring performance that didn’t give fans much hope going into a game against World Champions Australia.
Captain Sam Burgess led his side out at the London Stadium knowing that a draw or better would give them a place in the final at Anfield. Again, though, England’s game was rife with errors, including failing to find touch from a penalty on two occasions, and the host nation could never really get on the front foot and be the dominant force in the game. And, despite leading twice in the first half, went on to lose the game 18-36 after crumbling in defence in the second half.
After the game, England coach Wayne Bennett stated that the England players don’t have the self-belief to reach their potential on the international stage, saying: ‘’Right now, they don’t believe. They just have to realise how good they can be, but they don’t get that part unfortunately’’. This suggests the talent is there, which we know it is having seen some of the great performances that many of those England players have put in over the last couple of seasons, but they just can’t seem to get it right when they pull on that England jersey.
Bennett himself though does have to take some responsibility for this latest failure. Some of the team selections he made seemed odd, which made it hard for his side to settle into any kind of rhythm or style. For example, in each of the three games, a different halfback pairing started the game- Widdop/Gale vs New Zealand, Williams/Gale vs Scotland and Brown/Widdop vs Australia. It is understandable to change things if they aren’t working as well as it had been hoped, but to make changes to such crucial positions for every game meant England were never going to look smooth or have a full understanding of who they were playing with and what to expect from them.
Leaving Luke Gale and Daryl Clark out of the Australia game also raised some eyebrows, especially the Clark exclusion. The Warrington hooker has a reputation for being able to change a game with his quick minded style of play, so against a side like Australia his influence could have made a difference. It can be argued that decision came back to bite him on the backside when Josh Hodgson picked up an ankle injury and therefore had nowhere near as much impact on the game as he is capable of afterwards.
Even the type of rugby played wasn’t great on the eye. The middle men seemed to be overworked and the backs barely got a chance to show off their skill and athleticism, but then again when they did get the chance nothing much ever came from it, so it is hard to judge whether it was Bennett or the players on the field who brought on that criticism.
Having said all of that, it would have been unfair of England fans to have expected Bennett to transform England into world beaters after just 4 games in charge. Just because he has the label of being a ‘super coach’ does not mean he can take a historically underachieving side to the top of the international game with the click of a finger.
The disappointing tournament has to lay at the feet of the players. The majority of those involved did not perform at the level required for England to make a serious push towards glory. We didn’t see the best of some of the key players within the squad, with Sam Burgess and Kallum Watkins being prime examples of that. Of course, it doesn’t all come down to them, but your best players simply have to perform at their best to stand a chance on that stage.
You can be pretty certain that if the star names in the side had performed slightly better than they did, then the outcome of England’s tournament would not have come down to a drop goal in the first game.
But, as said of Wayne Bennett, it would also not be fair to expect the players to be the very best just because they are under a new, high profile coach.
It wasn’t all bad though. There were some positive notes to take from England’s performances. Ryan Hall and Jermaine McGilvary were great on the wing, scoring 3 tries a piece and getting stuck in to the game with metre-making carries down the middle too. The debutants in the squad also performed well, with the likes of Mark Percival and Luke Gale not looking out of place, and with more international experience they will and can only improve.
You can also look at the games another way too to create a more positive outlook. England were far from their best against Scotland but still won the game by a 26-point margin, showing they do have the grit to ride out the tough times and emerge on top. And, with a few different choices made and a slight bit more concentration, England would have beaten New Zealand, proving that the gap between those two nations in particular is nowhere as near as big as some think and showing that the series win over the Kiwis in 2015 was no fluke. Wayne Bennett backed that up by saying that the gap between England and Australia/New Zealand ‘isn’t all that big’. Adding to his earlier comment that England don’t have the belief, he went on to say: ‘’They are not that far behind. I cannot fault them off the field, they just have to get it right on the field. They are very capable and a better team than most people realise. I thought there would have been a lot more issues when I took charge’’.
Australia captain Cameron Smith is another who believes the gap in quality is not increasing, saying after yesterday’s contest in the capital: ‘’It was a high-quality game and England were very good. We had to come up with some special plays to get points against them. The score line did not reflect the contest. The gap is not widening; it may look that way but it was fairly tight through the whole 80 minutes’’.
England are in good hands under the management of Wayne Bennett, a man who has been there and done it all before having started his coaching career in 1976. With his input and expertise, and more time with the squad over the coming years including possible mid-season international tests, the Wall of White can surely on get better.
There is now just under a year until the World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea gets underway. England definitely have a lot of room for improvement, but for now must use this Four Nations experience as yet another learning curve and build from where they are now.