A decade in English rugby league (part 2)
Part one plotted the course of a decade of despair for the English national rugby league team. Looking forward this weekend, what does Wembley have in store: another heartbreaking loss, a painful flogging – or one of those all-too-rare bits of inspiration which have punctuated even the most barren runs?
The flipside of England’s tendency to disappoint is their capacity to get hopes up in the first place – often with a promising youngster, usually with a gritty win.
At Wigan in 2004’s Tri Nations. In Sydney in 2006. At other times they’ve run Australia close despite being firmly up against it – with 12 men after Adrian Morley was sent off in the opening play of the Ashes in 2003, and in the first 60 minutes of the Four Nations final in 2009 after a Greg Inglis-inspired flailing at Wigan.
The reality is, as often as not, England or Great Britain have been capable of at least putting a fright into the Kangaroos, even if they’ve struggled to win their share of the close games.
And their win loss record against the Kangaroos over the past decade compares pretty favourably with that of a Kiwi side which, unlike their Northern hemisphere cousins, has always been able to turn in its best performances when it mattered most.
But the truth is, at least on one view, they’ve been flattered by the odd win and close games.
Sometimes, the crushing but simple reality appears to be that England are horridly, embarrassingly off the pace.
Consider the horrors of the 2008 World Cup. Consider the ease with which the Kangaroo playmakers have decimated English three-quarter lines with simple second-man sweep plays. Consider the back three bumbles of Melbourne in 2009, the inept displays against New Zealand in 2006, and the crumbling under pressure against understrength Ashes competition in 2003. Or, if you really, really want to feel the burn, consider the floggings against the Australians in 2002 and 2004.
On the other hand, sometimes the going hasn’t been all bad. England has led the Aussies early in both of their most recent clashes – which is more than you can say for a New Zealand team which concedes soft tries in the opening stages of a game like it is going out of fashion. And in plenty of games over the last ten years they’ve been in it up to their eyeballs until the 60th, or 70th, or 79th minute.
This speaks to an underlying issue with England’s game: some of their biggest strengths also reflect their most glaring weaknesses.
Up the middle they retain vestiges of the old game. A succession of tough forward packs have consistently taken the fight to the Aussies. Just as notably, from Farrell and Schulthorpe right through to Graham and Burgess, they’ve retained the skillset and ballplaying nous to create breaks and points in the midst of the tough stuff.
Look at the highlights from England vs Australia games over the last ten years and marvel at how many clean breaks, remarkable runs, clever balls or tries were made or created by the big men in the pack.
It’s an unconventional look from an NRL perspective, where fans are now more accustomed to disciplined line running backrowers, locks in props bodies, and frontrowers for whom yardage and an ability to land on your knees are usually cherished over the deft hands and ballplaying ability that complemented the tough stuff in the old days.
So too are the nippy, unconventional halves and backs. The players that have troubled the Aussies the most over the last decade have always been the hardest to get a read on: Sean Long. Sam Tomkins. Even Kyle Eastmond in 2009 or, stretching the memory back a little further, Lee Briers in the World Cup semi final in 2000.
Of course, that didn’t mean they could provide the pinpoint kicking, the discipline or the direction to be a consistent threat over 80 minutes, let alone a series or a couple of seasons. And all the clever, tough work of the forwards doesn’t count for much if your ruck and edge defence buckles under pressure, or you give away enough stupid penalties to make Bryce Gibbs rise and applaud.
And that, in simple terms, is the root of the problem: an inconsistency and a vulnerability which speaks to the gulf between the Northern and Southern hemisphere domestic competition not so much in terms of natural talent (although there is that) but in terms of style, structure and discipline.
In short, England are always going to be up against it against a Kangaroos team which kicks well, defends cohesively and runs through structured backline plays – even if their unconventional style and occasional bouts of passion and panache produce the odd early lead or narrow win.
And they know it. Which is why every year you hear about the closing gap, about the increased coaching or technical nous, and, more and more, the flow players tested or reared in the NRL into England’s national squad.
This year the NRL influence is at its strongest, with Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington, Jack Reed and Gareth Widdop joining former Sydney Roosters veteran Adrian Morley, and Kiwi exile Rangi Chase (who had his own brief NRL career) selected at half.
You can see the motivation. They’re not that far away. Pick up a bit of NRL experience, do the little things right, cross your fingers, and who knows.
But here’s the thing. As rock solid as the boy from the quaint old English village of Umina is, professionalism isn’t something you can distill from the mere presence of Chris Heighington.
Nabbing a emigrant Bronco rookie with some experience defending in the centres in the NRL isn’t a long-term fix to a long-running ability to achieve competent, disciplined edge defence. And Rangi Chase – bless his red-crossed heart – is no Andy Gregory. He may not even be a Lee Briers.
England don’t have the players or the style of play to match the Kangaroos at their own game. But, again, the signs are that is exactly what they will try to do anyway. A conservative and out of position Kevin Sinfield has been selected as the safest choice at five-eighth. The bench is long on mobile backrowers . Safer choices have trumped risky selections elsewhere. The same glaring deficiencies appear to remain.
Which is why on Saturday morning, when the Lockyer and Thurston are directing a procession of decoys at the England three quarter line, and Inglis, Lawrence and Slater are doing what they do, it will all probably have that eerie feeling of a show you think you’ve seen before.
My solution? Who knows. But for what it’s worth (almost precisely nothing), if I were involved in the England set up, this is what I’d do: try and embrace the difference. Embrace your own style. The need for discipline and structure doesn’t necessitate pale imitation.
Work with the players you have – cherish the things that are unconventional by NRL standards rather than opting for inferior NRL-style automatons.
The Super League isn’t as high standard as the NRL, but it’s not the second-rate competition the caricaturists would have you believe. There is a talent there, but not enough to beat the Kangaroos at their own game. So don’t try. The flipside of the discipline of the NRL is that the players there are used to seeing a modest variation of the same old, same old every week. England have really tested Australian teams when they have brought something different to the table. So bring it.
But for God’s sake, try to watch a few tapes beforehand so when Lockyer goes to the line and Slater sweeps in behind, you look like you’ve seen it once or twice before.
Despite all of the above, a visit to Wembley will generate some of the familiar, reluctant optimism that at least some English rugby league fans bring themselves to not stuff down deep inside each year. And in this game there is always room for hope. England have some big talents.
They have the special magic of and a strong record at Wembley. London, if not abuzz with positive vibes after the rebirth of the Broncos and the looming descent of the league-loving folk from up North, is gearing up as if in hopeful expectation of the rare blips of brilliance.
More likely, it will be some variant of a familiar story. Kangaroos fans will nod knowingly. English fans will respond with their customary grace and brutally honest introspection in defeat. Just don’t do them the disservice of feeling sorry for them. And get ready for the day that it all turns around.
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Video produced by Matt Watson for The Roar.