Exciting signs but still a lot to learn

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The Independent Online

The realistic assessment of English rugby league in 2009 should be something like this: much better, but still not good enough.

Compared to the débâcle of the 2008 World Cup, performances in the Four Nations a year later were hugely encouraging. Major talents for the future, such as Richie Myler, Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond, came to the fore during the year.

The tournament also showed that the best of British forwards can hold their own with any in the world. Yet in the final, England were swept aside by an unstoppable Australia backline.

There was no disgrace in that. No other set of British backs would have lived with them, not unless you go back to Billy Boston and Neil Fox.

Super League reflected, even explained, the limitations of the national side. Entertaining and always full of athleticism and commitment, where it fails is in not producing enough young players capable of making the step up to a higher level.

That is partly because it's still too cluttered with average players from overseas and it left the England coach Tony Smith, an import himself, drastically short of choice in several positions.

There is surely a moral in the way that the two most successful sides of 2009 – Leeds and St Helens – are the ones who have invested most enthusiastically in grooming their own young players. The Rhinos who won the Grand Final were solidly built on that principle.

Others who had a memorable year were Warrington, Challenge Cup-winners and likely to be a force for some time, improving Huddersfield and Hull KR, and Championship-winners Barrow. The biggest disappointment by far were the Celtic Crusaders. There were plenty who doubted if they were ready for Super League, but hearts ruled heads.

The doubters were right, though, and it is hard to see them doing any better operating from their Wrexham base.

Three to watch

Kyle Eastmond Now an international, but still facing a massive task in replacing Sean Long at St Helens.

Matt Orford Experienced Aussie half-back is charged with reviving Bradford.

Joe Westerman Gifted young Castleford forward must rediscover 2008 form.

Dave Hadfield

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