This season’s Gillette Four Nations provided all the excitement, entertainment, passion and publicity that we could have expected from the tournament. It was disappointing then to find that England as yet have no confirmed fixtures for next season. The Australians will be sitting out next season in order to rest their players before the 2013 World Cup, and it seems that New Zealand may well do likewise.
Of course, it could be worse. In years gone by if no fixtures were planned for the following season that meant that there was no international rugby league planned for any time in the future. At least we know that there’s a World Cup the year after, and the next Four Nations in 2014.
In a way, however, that makes England’s predicament even more troubling. Having performed better than expected against Australia and New Zealand in the pool stage of the tournament (if not the final) England will not be able to test themselves against either the Four Nations holders or the world champions until the World Cup itself. This lack of adequate preparation may hamper England’s chances in 2013.
The best-case scenario is that New Zealand do agree to play one or two Tests against England, and Steve MacNamara’s men go on tour to the Pacific. Games against the Kiwis, as well either Pacific Islands All-Stars (as originally suggested by NZRL chief executive Jim Doyle) would provide serious opposition. Perhaps more important, a tour would bring the English players together in a way that staying home perhaps wouldn’t. Combined with mid-season games against the Exiles, this would be excellent preparation for England.
The problem is the uncertainty surrounding such a programme, with reports suggesting that the Kiwis may decide against playing any fixtures. Without at least one Test against the world champions, would a Pacific tour be worthwhile? If England stay at home who can they play against?
As ever, this kind of uncertainty provides a void into which rugby league fans can insert their suggestions about what can be done. As ever, such suggestions have varying degrees of merit, and tend to be dictated by personal preferences rather than anything else. Some favour Lancashire versus Yorkshire or Probables versus Possibles. I would suggest that games that don’t actually involve the England team won’t do anyone any good.
People have suggested differing tournaments of various sizes and involving various teams. If England are unable to tour, perhaps the most sensible approach is to examine which teams England have played in recent seasons, and which have provided decent opposition.
Top of the list are the Exiles: they, of course, beat England 16-12 in front of 14,174 at Headingley in last season’s International Origin. Cumbria provided tough opposition for a slightly understrength England two years ago, holding the national side to an 18-18 draw at Whitehaven. Mid-season games against France have been a flop, but in the 2009 Four Nations the French really troubled England, leading 12-4 at half-time in Doncaster. And given Wales’ respectable performances this season it would be unfair to exclude them, although they might prove to be the weakest opposition on that list.
This given, I would suggest some variant of the following: mid-season games against Cumbria (at Whitehaven) and Wales (perhaps at St Helens’ new stadium); and autumn games against France (at Les Catalans) and the Exiles (maybe with one game at Warrington and the other at Headingly). The England Knights need to be playing as well – players could well be called up for the World Cup – and they can play against any of these opponents, as well as the likes of Scotland or Ireland, or World Cup qualifiers USA or Italy.
Hopefully all this conjecture will be rendered unnecessary, and England will be able to go on tour and take on the Kiwis. But if not, it’s not beyond the RFL or the ERLF to come up with some fixtures to test England and give them some kind of pre-World Cup preparation.
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