Rugby League World Cup: Steve McNamara storms out of briefing after refusing to explain James Graham's omission


the Millennium Stadium

Steve McNamara, the England coach, walked out of his pre-World Cup press conference rather than explain his decision to drop James Graham from the curtain-raiser against Australia.

McNamara cut short the session in Cardiff when questioned about Graham and Gareth Hock, the forward thrown out of the squad this week for breaking England's drink ban and missing a training session. Hock has since complained that "six or seven" players in total were guilty, although there has been no confirmation that Graham, the England captain in 2010, is one of them.

Dropping one of England's best forwards and a star in Australia's NRL, however, takes a lot of explaining. But that was what McNamara was adamantly unwilling to do. "There are seven very good players not involved this week and I'm certainly not going to talk about any individual," he said. "I think the world of that squad, every single one of them, and they'll all play a part in this World Cup."

McNamara denied that the expulsion of Hock and the dropping of Graham, a major success with the Canterbury Bulldogs Down Under since joining them from St Helens, would have a negative effect on the squad preparing to face Australia in the tournament opener.

"I've got confidence in the group," he said, before refusing to answer whether he felt let down by any of his players. At that point, the normally affable England coach threatened to cut short the press conference if there were any more questions along those lines.

He was slightly more comfortable discussing the obvious need to improve drastically after last weekend's shock defeat by Italy that started the whole drama. "It was a real lesson for us," he said. "They were good and we were awful. We're very, very determined to put that right."

Those charged with doing that could include as many as four debutants. They are the 21-year-old Burgess twins, Tom and George, Wigan's Liam Farrell and Hock's replacement in the squad, Brett Ferres.

The basic shape of the side, however, will be the same as the one which performed so ineptly against Italy, with Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield still looking to show that they can play together effectively at half-back.

One player who could have been added to the mix, Wigan's Sean O'Loughlin, was, unlike Graham, not training and apparently still struggling with his Achilles injury.

Chase and Sinfield, in whom McNamara has put such faith, are up against a proven pairing in Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk, who will expose any tactical clunkiness or technical rough edges. Other obvious strengths in this outstanding Australia team are plenty of pace out wide and a back-row of the pack which, in the shape of Greg Bird, Sam Thaiday and Paul Gallen, ranks with the best they have put onto the field in recent years. Throw in Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith, all the best in the world in their positions, and they make formidable opposition and clear favourites to lift the trophy.

Against them, England could put out as many as four forwards without a single cap between them. "They are all very good players, international standard players that we have in the group," McNamara said. None of those players were made available, as the "siege mentality" which captain Sinfield mentioned earlier in the week became a reality.

Then somebody mentioned Hock and the fractious audience was over – but not in time to disguise the pressure the England coach is feeling.

Australia's wise old head, Tim Sheens, was not keen to get drawn into England's internal agonies. "I'm not particularly interested," he said. "But an embarrassed side is a dangerous side. When things go wrong it can have exactly the reverse effect."

Sheens will finalise his bench, but said that Australia will concentrate on the fundamentals in their first match together for six months. "The fancy game-plans and fancy moves will come later," he said.

At least McNamara has something to be grateful for then.


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