England’s much-needed first meeting of 2022 revealed more problems to solve than reasons to purr.
Victory over a Combined Nations All-Stars less than four months from a home World Cup brought some positive results. Last but not least, England actually managed to see enough players released by Super League clubs to play an international game.
But Australia and New Zealand won’t have been particularly spooked by what they saw if they actually watched the game. And even head coach Shaun Wane admitted he has “certain things to fix that are unacceptable” with just one game left before the tournament’s opening game in October.
The positive. It was fantastic to see England reunited as one, with the women’s, men’s and wheelchair teams all enjoying morale-boosting weekend victories.
With the wise old man of Sam Tomkins by your side, you have confidence in what the team could achieve that simply wouldn’t be there without his absence.
John Bateman and George Williams, two well-known players who have yet to shine in the Betfred Super League this season, looked rejuvenated – especially Williams, who has had a miserable season to date for the out-of-form Warrington Wolves.
And the All Stars were a decent team that displayed real caliber throughout the roster. Indeed, this was a team that beat England last summer and this time they were second best.
But Shaun Wane told The Sportsman last week that he was picking players and a squad he could see participating in a World Cup final. The harsh reality, therefore, is that this was far from the case.
All Stars assistant coach Andrew Henderson told me last week that this England side lacks a talisman, a James Graham or Sam Burgess who would overdo it for his side against the Aussies and see the rest of the team follow. Even with this squad bolstered by their England-based NRL players, you can feel he’s right.
Trust. That’s a big word and says a lot about England’s head coach. Although some players – like Zak Hardaker, who Wane’s Wigan sacked this season – have been ruled out because of their form, the truth is Wane has players he trusts so much that he’s actually able to ignore their club form .
Williams is a good example. A fall guy in Warrington who seems to be struggling to find form and learn the pieces brought in by new boss Daryl Powell. Wane chose him anyway. Wane has held Williams in high esteem since the half-back’s Wigan days and is brave enough to ignore slumps in form to instead rely on proven class that he knows won’t go away in a few dodgy months.
So did Hooker Michael McIlorum, who hadn’t played for England in nine years and chose Ireland instead. Another player Wane trusted during his time as Wigan head coach is now back in the trenches for him and looks set for a World Cup spot.
As for the concept itself, I’m not sure it can last. In theory, it works well as it brings together a Super League squad of diverse and proud backgrounds who are already competing against England’s best on a weekly basis. But in reality, it’s all so short-term and chaotic that it doesn’t feel entirely worthwhile for its original purpose.
Most available players are highlighting the break in league games as an opportunity for a week off to recover for the second half of the season. So bringing a team together is a nightmare for the coaching staff. And as Hull KR hooker Matt Parcell found out, when players are left out of the England squad and instead move to the All Stars, as was the case with Hooker Daryl Clarke, those players who make themselves available can still be left out and Kruise Leeming.
There needs to be more international rugby leagues to boost international play, any England fan would appreciate that. But not that kind of random international audition.
Action returns across all divisions this week and rekindling an old rivalry seems to be the pick of the week. Defending Betfred Super League champions St Helens host a Leeds Rhinos side rebuilt under new manager Rohan Smith in a double-header on Thursday night, followed by Saints women against the Rhinos.
Smith’s are a Leeds side who are currently far from the mighty Saints but had a notable Grand Final success against their rivals in the late noughties. Thankfully, memories of losing five straight Grand Finals are a long way off for this stylish current season of Saints, who will instead find Thursday night’s televised game the perfect chance to make another strong mark for the second half of the season.
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