Is it really four years since the circus left town? It must be, the global gaze is turning toward the southern hemisphere in October as the Rugby League World Cup takes place in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.
2013’s jamboree on these shores, embraced the European League nations, criss-crossing the English Channel and Irish Sea. Australia were imperious, untouchable; only England laid a glove on them in the opening game, a fixture to be repeated this time around.
If the English are to improve on the semi-final showing of the last World Cup, the first match will give us a good indication of whether any glory might arrive. The Kangaroos 28 – 20 victory at the Millenium Stadium, included four tries in seventeen minutes; it was a devastating spell which turned the match upside down, turning England’s 10 – 0 lead into a twelve-point and ultimately insurmountable, deficit.
England are Europe’s best hope for winning the World Cup. New Zealand may offer the best southern hemisphere alternative to Australia; the Kiwis are the only nation to beat their rivals. The question is have England improved enough to take that step.
A 30 – 10 win over Samoa at the weekend left the England squad feeling perkier. Captain Sean O’Loughlin believed that travelling to the South Pacific provided more benefit than a home match in which they cruised to victory. It wasn’t just in the team-building off the pitch although he highlighted that the bonding process for the autumn tournament sped along on the trip, but the match itself. “On the field we’ve had a tough physical battle,” he observed, before adding, “which I think is what we all wanted out of this game.”
Let’s Have The Samoa Attitude Again
Samoa, ranked fifth in the world, were brushed aside comfortably. Crucially, England outmanoeuvred their bigger opponents by being nimbler on their feet. It was a match where Wayne Bennett’s team selection – in the face of received wisdom – was vindicated with a performance that eclipsed anything produced in the last Four Nations tournament.
The timing couldn’t have been better. England’s encounter with Samoa was the second part of a double-header with Australia besting New Zealand 16 – 0 in Canberra the night before.
At Campbelltown, England’s defensive work shone. With Australia’s dominance of the ball in most tests, this is an aspect which demands flawless performances from their opponents. The headlines go to the try scorers every time but when the defensive work is of the calibre produced by Kevin Brown and Luke Gale, confidence oozes through the side in attack.
Knowing that there is a strong defensive ethic underpinning the side, allows the calculated attack for which Bennett is noted. Samoa saw England take fewer risks than normal, with the flashy and eye-catching hand-offs and passes kept to a minimum.
Brown, with three assists in the second half, underlined the belief England now have. He and Gale combined well to subdue Anthony Milford with a no-nonsense display, underpinned by hard work. The pair received praise from their coach, who was impressed by the way they “complemented” each other.
For Bennett, the most encouraging aspect was winning without the likes of Williams and Widdop in the side. His squad has a previously missing depth, as well as a resilience which might easily have fallen away in the six months or so since the last international.
The coach isn’t getting his own way with all his demands for World Cup preparations but in a sport where internationals are relatively few and far between, this victory offers a good signpost to where England stand.
Doubts were cast about his methods last year, but instilling belief into the squad has been an unconditional success. The clubs, despite reservations, have bought into helping the England squad and releasing their players at this time is only beneficial in the long term.
A good showing in the World Cup has a knock-on effect for the sport in a positive sense. Union garners the media’s attention for most of the year but it’s time for League to push itself more into the limelight.
History may be against them with only two wins to date over the Kiwis, as are the sports bookmaker odds with England third favourites at 15/2 as of May 12th. But England need only beat Australia once, in the World Cup Final in Brisbane on 2nd December 2017. Managing to win in the group stage would be a very welcome bonus.