A rather disappointing and discouraging season failed to put a smile back on anyone’s face with a typically disappointing and discouraging international series between England, France and Wales.
Nobody was overly enthusiastic about the prospect of this three-way tournament, and in three low-key games England overcame what little opposition was on offer with an aggregate winning margin of 172-22. The lack of competiveness from two teams who have competed in Four Nations tournaments and the lack of any real test for the England side ahead of a World Cup has fuelled a great deal of criticism. But is that criticism justified?
That isn’t to ask whether people are correct in the bleak assessment of the tournament – of course they are. But criticism has spilled over into blame, as though someone, somewhere must be responsible.
Is it fair to point the finger of blame at the RFL? Not really, when we consider the scarcity of available options. Both Australia and New Zealand had opted to rest their players ahead of next year’s World Cup, and that being the case, who else could the RFL have arranged games against? On paper Wales and France were the best options – in fact, even given the one-sided nature of their defeats, I defy anyone to come up with a better option.
In France we have a side that has – occasionally – shown itself to be competitive. In the 2009 Four Nations France actually led England 12-4 at half-time in Doncaster, before succumbing to a (comparatively) respectable 34-12 defeat. You might argue that France have also been the victims of some very one-sided mid-season internationals – I would counter, then, that the 44-6 and 48-4 defeats in this series are an improvement on the sixty-point thrashings we’ve been accustomed to.
The 80-12 defeat of Wales, however, had absolutely nothing to commend it, and was very difficult to watch (not least because of the decision to play David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ after every single try and every single goal, a decision which whoever was responsible persisted with until the bitter end). But again, Wales didn’t exactly disgrace themselves in last season’s Four Nations, particularly against Australia at Wrexham, so the margin of their defeat to England was more an unpleasant surprise than a tragic inevitability.
The point is that the RFL didn’t do anything wrong in setting up this tournament. They chose opposition which, though weak, was the strongest available – indeed, in different circumstances this could have been a more competitive and even more entertaining affair.
Yet some would argue that the RFL did have another option – not to play any games at all. Garry Schofield has argued as much, describing the tournament as “a series that will do more harm than good”. Perhaps the RFL could have decided like the ARL and the NZRL to give the players a break.
However, Steve McNamara and the England coaching staff clearly didn’t agree. They saw the value in bringing the players together for the training camp in South Africa followed by a number of games which, though not the most competitive, gave them opportunity to train, prepare and play together. It’s hard to imagine that simply not playing would have done anything to assist England ahead of the World Cup. The players seem to agree, with Kevin Sinfield, Sam Tomkins and Kallum Watkins all arguing that the tournament was a help rather than a hindrance.
None of this is to downplay how disappointing it was to see England cruise past France and Wales, seemingly without any effort. Nor is it to suggest that England’s margins of victory show a team of world-beaters that will overwhelm Australia and New Zealand next season (far from it). It is simply to argue, given that England were better off training and playing together than not, the decision to play these games was probably the only one that could be made.
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