Most England rugby league fans got what they wanted when Steve McNamara was finally ousted from his role as England coach. McNamara’s contract finished at the end of 2015 but the RFL decided against renewing it, preferring instead to appoint Wayne Bennett as the new England boss.
The announcement came as no surprise to anybody when it was finally made earlier this month, but back in November, following the 2014 win over New Zealand at Wigan, few would have predicted that McNamara’s reign as England coach had come to an end.
McNamara himself seems to have expected his contact to be renewed, saying in an interview yesterday that he was confident about winning next year’s World Cup in Australia.
Whether or not McNamara would have led England to World Cup success is now a moot point. But it does have to be said that the erstwhile coach was very harshly and unfairly maligned by supporters, dismissed as a joke and laughingly referred to as “McBanana”.
It was never clear to me what McNamara had done to earn this derision. In the years leading up to his appointment Phil Clarke had resigned from his role with the national side due to disillusionment with the poor way things were being run, and this was followed by the ill-fated World Cup campaign in which Tony Smith’s England squad was riven by club loyalties.
McNamara turned things around, organising the England set-up in a far superior way to before, including more team events and training, trying to instil a “two team mentality” to overcome the club divisions, and founding the England Knights as a pathway into the first-team squad.
Unfortunately these undoubted achievements off the pitch were not replicated where it counts – on the pitch. McNamara’s win record against Australia/New Zealand was a mere 23 per cent, compared to the 44 per cent of Smith or the 43 per cent of Brian Noble. It is this record, despite the series win, that counted against McNamara, and makes it so hard to defend his time as England coach.
The other factor is that Wayne Bennett is perhaps the greatest rugby league coach in the world right now. Bennett’s achievements speak for themselves, winning seven NRL titles and playing a part in New Zealand’s 2008 World Cup win. The RFL have done the right thing appointing Bennett, and hopefully he will lead England to success in 2017. If he does though, it will be at least in part thanks to the foundation laid by McNamara.
Fears for the World Club Series
Round 2 of Super League certainly provided some shocks, including Salford’s 44-10 win over St Helens and Widnes’ 56-12 hammering of Leeds. Was this a case of the two smaller teams playing unexpectedly well, or the two bigger teams playing unexpectedly badly? I can’t comment on the game at Widnes as I only saw the highlights, but in the case of Salford-St Helens the answer is both.
Salford were superb in attack, with a level of vision and awareness that made every attacking move potentially dangerous – see, for example, Michael Dobson’s kick to Greg Johnson for the Reds’ opening score. Saints, by contrast, were in unrecognisably poor form, with a blunt attack and a tracing paper-thin defence. Salford played well, no doubt, but they weren’t up against serious opposition.
All of which makes you fear for the results of this weekend’s World Club Series. If Saints and Leeds can’t lift their game massively – and it’s a tough ask for the Rhinos given their extensive injury list, to which Carl Ablett, Tom Briscoe and Ashton Golding were added on Sunday – things could become embarrassing.
Warrington coach Tony Smith has voiced his support for the new reserve league, in which the Wolves won their first game against Wigan 22-4 earlier this month. Smith viewed the game as “a fantastic exercise”, arguing the new league would provide opportunities for developing players “who in the past wouldn’t have had a game” as well as more senior players retraining from injury.
St Helens and Wigan followed the same approach when they met on Saturday, Saints winning by 38 points to 14. Travis Burns and Joe Greenwood played for Saints and Lee Mossop for the Warriors, as well as a number of developing players who may get first-team opportunities at some stage during the season.
St Helens winger Regan Grace is just one of those. He was in fine form on Saturday, scoring two tries – one an outstanding 90 metre effort – as well as showing himself capable in defence and reliable under a high ball.
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