The first article in this series focused on Australia, its international team and its attitude towards the World Cup and international rugby league in general compared towards the NRL and State of Origin, but what about the country where the game was born, England?
Many moons ago, former England captain and coach Johnny Whiteley MBE, restarted the famous West Hull Amateur club, and deciding what colours they were going to wear was easy, at the time Great Britain had just beaten Australia in a test series down under, and Johnny said the players at West Hull could not sport the Red, White and Blue of the best team in the world at that time, because they had to earn that right to wear them.
However he did say they could wear the Green and Gold of the second best team in the world, and West Hull ARLFC still play in those same colours now, the moral of this story is that, yes, we used to be the best international side in the world, we had the best league, and we produced the best players, such as Johnny, Billy Boston, Roger Millward and Clive Sullivan MBE to name just a few.
If the current crop are ever to look to equal these greats of the game, things have to change in a very big way, and we’re not just talking about producing great players, and selecting them on form, as opposed to selecting the name, or club they play for, a criticism that has been leveled at many an England or Great Britain boss in years gone by.
The first thing that needs implementing is a compulsory reserve league, involving every club, with a competitive league, not one where a team(s) belittle it by saying they will only let their reserve team play against certain other reserve teams.
In 2016 only four Super League teams had reserve teams, it was no coincidence that those four teams actually finished in the coveted Top 4 in Super League, with the three trophies on offer going to the top 3 teams. This would kick start careers for promising young players who are too young to progress into the first team, but too old to play in their club’s academy sides, yes the odd one or two can break into the first team as a teenager, but in truth it is only a minority of the amount of teenage players who are in academy squads.
There can also be no doubt that amateur clubs have their part to play, that is after all, where these players begin their rugby league journey in the majority of cases, and the Challenge Cup can also be a huge help, it is the biggest shop window for an amateur player who is looking to make a headline for himself, playing against a professional club.
England has produced some great players, some of them are currently, or have recently been, playing in the NRL, players like Josh Hodgson, Sam Burgess, Gareth Widdop, and previously people like Gareth Ellis, Adrian Morley and many more, have graced the competition down under.
In Australia, if a player leaves the NRL, he doesn’t play for Australia, is it time for England to do the same, to keep these home bred talents here, to improve the game here? Yes playing in the NRL is the best option seemingly for a player with international aspirations, but does it also help Australia, because they know those players inside out, so they know how to deal with them?
If England are to beat Australia in years to come, including if they make it to the World Cup Final on 2nd December, the key to beating them has got to be, to put them out of their comfort zone, by offering something different, that they haven’t had to deal with before!
Yes we’re going down that route of Wayne Bennett picking players who have proved in domestic competition, that they can do something that nobody else can, and that other international teams, Australia included, don’t have the ammunition to counteract.
To beat any side, you need some players that can keep your team organised, disciplined and able to dig in, you also need some X Factor out there, a player who can produce something that nobody else can or will.
The X Factor players that England currently have in their squad at the World Cup, and this is only my opinion, are Ryan Hall, George Williams and James Roby, with Gareth Widdop as the main kingpin.
Yes it must be said that the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk are in the twilight of their playing careers, but we know that Australia will churn out high quality replacements for them, England, and hopefully Great Britain, need to start doing the same.
It’s fair to say that the reserves league didn’t really get going to any great affect, but that doesn’t mean it can’t start producing talent, if the RFL start by making it compulsory for all clubs, and support it with fixtures week in, week out, that could be a start to helping the national team get to achieving what some of our rugby league royalty did in the 1960s and 70s.