Michael Shenton: English rugby league needs to work hard to retain talent

Castleford centre Michael Shenton was left with a feeling of frustration after being part of England‘s squad in the 2014 Four Nations.

Although he played in the tour’s one English win, over Samoa in the opening game, the 28-year-old was left with an overriding sense of disappointment after Steve McNamara’s men suffered close defeats to the Kangaroos and Kiwis.

“There was a real opportunity there,” he told Love Rugby League.

“The boys put some really good stuff together and were unfortunate not to win.

“We’re not far away from the Southern Hemisphere teams, but international rugby is about fine margins over an 80-minute game, and it seems we just can’t quite get it right.

“But it was promising in that it was Down Under, and it’s a long time since a team has played well down there.

“I think there’s definitely promise there. Sarginson’s coming through, and the younger Burgess boys. Out of the team that went down there, it’s only Sean O’Loughlin that was over 30.

“That’s pretty amazing, when you compare it to the Aussies, they’ve always got five or six over 30.

“The England set-up needs to buy into the belief that we can really beat them.

“There’s a big series here this year, with the Kiwis coming. I’d love to be involved in that, but there’s a long way to go and a lot of hard work to be done.

“Steve McNamara has proved that he will pick you on form, so I’ve obviously got to get my form right.”

Shenton, an articulate and thoughtful man, feels that the sport in Europe is facing some challenges, not least in the way in which it looks to develop and retain players, with more being tempted to the NRL or even to rugby union.

Leeds veteran Kevin Sinfield opined recently that the salary cap for Super League was set too low, and that a larger TV deal would help the game to raise the cap, and remain attractive to players.

It is a sentiment shared by Shenton, who is worried that the continuing pull of both the NRL‘s big bucks, and the prospect of earninig more money for less work in the ranks of rugby union, are working to detract from Super League‘s appeal.

“I can see both sides of the argument,” he said.

“I think Kevin has got a good point: if we want to make this sport successful, we can’t let our best players go. We just can’t afford that.

“We’ve got guys who probably won’t stay in this competition, when there’s going to be a difference between not just paying your house off, but having a nice kitty behind you as well.

“Look at what raising the salary cap over in Australia has done – it has raised the game.

“The TV put more money into the game, so the onus is on them to listen to the players and make the game better, if they have more investment in it.

“The sport was struggling, though, and I’m not sure Cas would still be here [if it wasn’t for the Sky money].

“It’s got us out of trouble, but it’s a five-year deal, and where are we going to be in five years? Are we going to be in the same situation we are now?

“Rugby union is going to increase their cap, the NRL seem to increase theirs every two years, so after five years where are we going to be? I think it’s only going to get worse.

“Over there [in Australia], they’ve got guys on million dollar contracts.

“If we want to improve this game, we need to know our strengths, and one of our strengths is the real talent coming through in the sport.

“A lot of it seems to be going away, and a lot of others are being enticed to go, and getting offers.

“It won’t be long before it becomes an even more regular occurrence.

“But I don’t know where the finance would come from. You definitely need the Sky money to raise the salary cap.

“Other sports do that, the TV money pays for everything. Other sports are getting bigger deals, and we’re just sort of sitting still.”

Sheton believes that a vibrant international calendar would help matters, but cannot see any kind of central contract structure being implemented for the England team any day soon.

“You can’t compare it to anything else. Cricket, football, rugby union, they have internationals throughout the season,” he said.

“Then they have tournaments every two years. England rugby union have the Six Nations every spring, and then they have a Southern Hemisphere tour as well, you just can’t compare it.

“But it’s tricky at the minute, because we just don’t have the player pool to allow clubs to loan their players out.

“If you ask Wigan to let out Matty Smith, Dan Sarginson, Sean O’Loughlin and Mick McIlorum to play in a mid-season tour or test matches, then they haven’t got the players to replace them.

“Or, at Cas, like me and Daryl Clark last year, who do you replace players with?

“But in rugby union, they have a set-up with central contracts, and cricket’s just the same.

“Until we get an international game where people are willing to put money into it, and we can get some backers, and you get a TV deal to back a tournament or pay for it, it won’t happen.”

One thing which does fill Shenton with optimism, however, is the way that the England squad was well-stocked with potentially world-class players of the future, not least in his own position of centre.

“In the centre, there are a lot of one-on-one battles,” he explained.

“There are a lot of situations where you come up directly against your opposite centre, and you want to beat him.

“You have to stop him beating you, it’s very one-on-one in the tackles, not like the middle, where there’ll be three-on-one, or two-on-one tackles.

“So you can imagine that shutting someone like Kallum Watkins down is a tough ask. Hopefully it’s the same for him on me.

“You have that kind of battle, and for us to get better, we need to be playing those guys every week and to be on top of your game.

“That’s what the Aussies have got, and we’re getting too, so it’s important to keep those young guys in the game, because it’s important to play against them.”

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