Whisper it softly, to your friends, family and neighbours. England have a big opporunity of success in this Four Nations.
Yes they are ranked number three in the world right now (let’s not get started on the validity of the rankings), and yes they have never won a Four Nations since the tournament was created back in 2009.
But the stars are aligning for England to have its best chance of victory in recent memory.
Firstly, there’s the return of Sam Burgess. The prodigal son has returned. Back from a stint in the other code, ‘Slamming Sam’ has return to the game that made him and nourished him.
With the skipper’s armband as well, the bloke Russell Crowe calls ‘The Sparkly Eyed Man’ is primed to led his country to new heights.
Then there’s the man he beat for the captaincy, James Graham. Easily one of the best props in the game, Graham has made a seamless transition from Super League to the NRL. He remains a world-class talent who commands respect.
Joining him in the pack is Josh Hodgson, who has usurped Isaac Luke this season to be Cameron Smith‘s equal as the best hooker in the world, and Elliot Whitehead who has thrived in his first season with Canberra. Throw in the twin Burgess monsters, George and Tom, the underrated Mike Cooper from the Dragons and the outstanding pair of Chris Hill and John Bateman.
Secondly, there’s the Wayne Bennett factor. ‘The Skinny coach’ has won more titles that we care to mention. Jack Gibson, Bob Fulton, Tim Sheens – He has no peer in the history of rugby league in terms of pure success.
Clubland, State of Origin, international level, he’s done it all before. He also has extra motivation after losing out in the Kangaroos job to Mal Meninga. Hell hath no fury like a Bennett scorned.
Never been has England been blessed with so many world-class players who do the business in the NRL. Who are not scared or overawed at their Kiwi and Aussie rivals. Burgess, Graham and co play against Shaun Johnson, Matt Scott and Jonathan Thurson every week. They know they are human and can make mistakes too. There is no longer a fear factor that may have plagued past England sides.
Thirdly, many in the England squad arrive in good form. Hodgson is on fire. Sam Burgess has returned to rugby league with vigour. Whitehead, Hill , Bateman, Luke Gale, Dan Sarginson, Jonny Lomax all enjoyed brilliant campaigns. Injuries, apart from Sean O’Loughlin, Brett Ferres and Sam Tomkins, have been kept to a minimum for England.
Fourthly, there is the benefit of home advantage. It’s no secret that New Zealand struggle in UK conditions. The Kiwis haven’t had a successful tour of England in some time. They lost the series here 2-1 last year and head into this tournament with a record of four losses from their past five games.
They have a rookie coach who admitted a huge blunder recently in Perth in mismanaging his interchange and they are missing key players like Kieran Foran, Roger Tuivasa-Scheck and captain Simon Mannering. Their new halves partnership has yet to click and Jordan Kahu is not a usual fullback. New Zealand is vulnerable right now.
Then there’s the Kangaroos. After a slide in 2014, when with a raft on injuries and pullouts Sheen’s green and gold were defeated in the final, they have been revitalised.
Mal Meninga has come on board promising to bring back the passion, fire and pride. So far he’s three wins from two games and has done just that. They were brutally efficient last night in dismantling Scotland.
The spine of the Australia side is brilliant but ageing. Thurston and Cameron Smith are both 33, Cooper Cronk is 32, Darius Boyd is 29. All have shown this year that the peak of their powers have yet to wane. But will that be the same in 12 months time when the World Cup rolls around? They cannot go on forever.
Meninga has been smart in blooding new players into his team. Valentine Holmes, Matt Moylan, Jake Trbojevic, Justin O’Neill etc. The balance of his team in terms of age has improve. Even forgetting James Maloney, who at 30 has to be the oldest Test debutant Australia has fielded in decades. Meninga has said goodbye to Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Corey Parker and Robbie Farah. Even the likes of Andrew Fifita and Jarryd Hayne have been left out.
Such is the depth Australia possesses that they could field a third-string side and still be competitive. Ben Barba at fullback, Ben Hunt and Daly Cherry-Evans in the halves, Farah at hooker – that’s not too shabby.
But in the past 10 years New Zealand has shown that the Kangaroos are beatable. That they have off days and can be toppled on occasion. The Kiwis did it in 2005, in 2008, in 2010 and 2014. The blueprint is there and few people know the strengths and weakenesses of the Aussies better than one of their own – Wayne Bennett.
The chance is there to break their duck and throw down a marker before the World Cup. To put a bright ending to what, in many respects, has been a tough year for the sport in the UK.