With less than 100 days to go before the start of the Rugby League World Cup, the coaches of England and Australia have, in one sense, been exchanging places.
While Steve McNamara was busy in Sydney, keeping in close touch with the Australian-based members of his squad, his Kangaroos counterpart, Tim Sheens, was in Britain urging on his fellow-countrymen in the Festival of World Cups that has acted as an aperitif for the main event.
For both of them, the buzz of anticipation is there as the countdown to the sport’s biggest event came down into double figures. For Sheens, seeing Australia win the Women’s, Police and Students World Cups at Headingley last month was the ideal preparation.
Nothing so unusual about that in the world of rugby league, you might think, but in none of those three categories were Australia the obvious favourites. That distinction fell to New Zealand, Fiji and England respectively, all of whom finished second-best to the green and gold.
But come the main event in October, the Australians, despite the denting of their invulnerability of late in other sports – rugby union, cricket and a poor showing at the London Olympics – will inevitably be the hot favourites.
“I don’t think we’re under any special pressure to put things right for Australia,” Sheens says. “I think we’ll just be concentrating on our own sport.”
As for the burden of favouritism, the vastly experienced Sheens takes it with a large pinch of salt.
“People may say we’re favourites, but there are at least two other teams that will have something to say about that,” he says.
“New Zealand are the holders and we know how many players they have playing now in the NRL. On top of that, they now have Sonny Bill Williams and he could be the X-factor for them.”
Williams’ outstanding form for the Sydney Roosters has silenced sceptics who doubted whether he could adapt to playing league again after four years in rugby union.
Equally important, the man his critics call “Money Bill” seems fully committed to his original code, at least until after the World Cup.
Sheens got back to Australia to find that Benji Marshall, once his star player at Wests Tigers, had not only lost the Kiwi captaincy, but also requested a release from his club and looks set to switch to rugby union.
Sheens, whose diverse duties on his trip included some training sessions with the Russian Students’ side, is confident that England’s new generation of forwards will make their presence felt come October.
Sheens, the man who effectively began the British brawn drain by taking Gareth Ellis to Australia, has not only been able to monitor the form of established pack-men such as James Graham and Sam Burgess, but also the next generation – Burgess’s younger twin brothers, George and Tom.
“I think it will be the first time since 2009 that Sam has played against us, because of injury. So he is like having a new player, but his brothers have been terrific too.
“Steve McNamara might decide to stick with the players who have done it for him in the recent past, but the Burgesses, if he picks them, they could be an X-factor as well.”
McNamara spent time with all of them – and with his other English-qualified players on his recent visit. The objective was to make those exiles feel a part of the main group back home.
“The pleasing thing is how excited they all are about the World Cup,” he says.
McNamara met one member of his foreign legion, Melbourne’s Halifax-born stand-off Gareth Widdop, in unfortunate circumstances – in hospital after dislocating his hip playing for his club. That nasty injury was widely assumed to have ended Widdop’s World Cup hopes, but better news since suggests that he could recover in time to stake a claim, as will Brisbane’s Jack Reed, originally from Castleford, despite a recent collarbone injury scare.
With England’s big kick-off against Australia at the Millennium Stadium less than three months away on 26 October, McNamara himself is feeling the excitement – and his southern hemisphere expedition has intensified it considerably. Although his priority has been to spend time with his own players, he has watched as many other games as possible; anything to give him a feel for what lies ahead this autumn.
Unlike some previous British coaches, McNamara has not had to spend time studying superior Australian training facilities.
Loughborough, where his elite training squad is based, is state-of-the-art. The issue for him now is whether anyone, such as Wakefield’s Danny Kirmond, for instance, has done enough to force their way into that squad.
Sheens says he has as many as 40 players in mind as possible participants in the World Cup, although no doubt form in the ultra-demanding State of Origin series will be the decisive factor in most cases.
“It’s like a selection trial for us,” says Sheens, who arranged his itinerary to be home in time for the deciding game. That was won by Queensland to clinch an eighth successive series, watched by half of the Australian public and the Manchester United squad, who were in Sydney.
“Most of the attention in Australia has been on Origin. Now the focus will be on the World Cup.”
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