A World Cup final, another victory over fierce rivals New Zealand and a monumental step forward as the games global pioneers; it’s been quite the upward trajectory for England.
It certainly is an exciting time to be an England fan. In truth, it couldn’t have been much better for the Wall of White – if it wasn’t for the tight, heart wrenching loss to Australia in the World Cup Final, it would have been perfect!
It seems a lifetime ago that Steve McNamara was at the helm – when in reality, only three years have passed. The era of Wayne Bennett is well underway and despite a shaky start, things are beginning to look fruitful for England.
Yes, it didn’t look great at first – a Four Nations that didn’t last long in the memory kick started his tenure and immediately doubters began to surface. Yet, Bennett displayed his veteran career professionalism and stuck to his guns – a mentality that before long started to make waves within English rugby league.
It was shortly after the poor 2016 Four Nations that Bennett laid out his demands to the RFL – he wanted his England squad to train together more often in an effort to increase chemistry, he wanted a mid-season international test match to be played in order to further legitimise the global game and he wanted to shorten the Super League season in order to have more time to ready his players for International tournaments.
While the first two were accepted by RFL director Nigel Wood, the last was never going to materialise – due to the sheer numbers of opposition to the idea. This was to be the beginning of a small feud between some Super League clubs and the Australian.
However, despite the criticism he was facing, he was adamant that the changes would help elevate England to the level they so desire.
From this the England Performance squads were born, one of which was a continuation of the England Knights set-up, only this time they were to train together more often throughout the year. The main squad however was to be made up of 21 players and called the Elite Performance Squad – in which the players selected would train up to 8 times throughout the year.
Despite this implementation being a step forward, Bennett received criticism for often selected a handful ‘Aussie Englishmen’ who only qualify through an English relative. While the morality of this type of decision is available for debate, it is not a concern for Bennett and more so for International rugby league as a whole – Pacific Island players jump between nations frequently.
England now fully integrated within a new regime, they set their sights firmly on the World Cup in Australia. Many knew not what to expect, as it seems all too familiar seeing England fall on the biggest stage. Not to mention the vast improvements of Tonga and Samoa – England had their work cut out. Yet, after a promising start against Australia in the tournament opener, England kicked on to have a successful World Cup run losing only two games – both to holders Australia. The final itself was tense and fiercely contested, England being very unlucky to remain scoreless. It was however a mesmerising defensive display in which the World Cup winners were kept to only six points.
With regret threatening to overshadow the England squad, Sam Burgess took to the microphone upon defeat and vowed that this England side was here to stay and most certainly here to do more than just compete. Wounded, they returned home – but the hunger never left.
This much was displayed upon the arrival of 2018, in which ground-breaking developments surfaced. England were to play New Zealand in Denver – ushering in a exciting new era of rugby league global expansion. The two nations now had exciting, event filled international calendars with the American test in June and the Autumn test series upon the seasons end. The days in which international games seemed like tacked on friendlies, in which all teams bowed down to Australia, are over.
The Denver test was a monumental occasion that saw 19,320 pile through the gates at the Mile High Stadium in order to catch a glimpse of none stop rugby league football.
The quality on the field faced early scepticism upon the announcement of the fixture, with many Australian/NRL doubters claiming player welfare an issue (the altitude and heat being the specific concerns). Well, if one thing was proven in the test, it was that those doubters hadn’t a clue what they’re talking about. The game was an emphatic 36-18 win for England, which despite what it might seem, was a tightly contested game with immense quality from both sides.
If this game did anything, it was cement that the form England showed in the World Cup wasn’t a fluke and it helped spread the word of our great game to a sport loving American culture.
With Bennett’s era set to continue and cover the next World Cup, the question is: what can we expect? Well, with the competition returning to the sports birthplace, England, it should be expected that England can go one step further than 2017 and win.
The vast improvements, both logistically behind the scenes and the actual on field product are clear for all to see. The depth and quality the squad seems to possess is amplified by the loud debates over those who missed out on selection.
Every moment that passes, the England team seems to leap from strength to strength and with a world class, veteran of the game at the helm; it could just be that the World Cup could is coming home.