Bowing out with glory
There’s no other word that can describe England’s late defeat to New Zealand on Saturday afternoon at Wembley.
A World Cup campaign which looked like it was never going to get going came gloriously to life as we had the World Champions on the ropes for most of an amazing semi-final, only for it to come unstuck right at the death.
England and Great Britain have suffered a lot of last-minute defeats in the modern era, but none have hurt like that.
Shaun Johnson’s try and goal produced a horrible gut-wrenching feeling that I suspect British fans haven’t felt since Old Trafford in 1990 or Wembley in 1992.
There were positives all over the field, not least Sam Burgess’s performance, which I believe should see him confirmed as this year’s Golden Boot winner.
But for all those positives, the bottom line is we will not be competing in the World Cup Final.
And let’s not blame anybody for that. Most of the players were first class and the coach, Steve McNamara, deserves enormous credit for bringing in Gareth Widdop, who had an excellent game.
We can point to a few incidents in the final ten minutes when wrong options were taken or when mistakes were made, but that was simply down to the fact that Super League rarely provides that sort of pressure football.
The NRL does; and despite being outclassed, the Kiwis coped better in those frantic closing stages.
But back to England, and this particular set of players. Unlike after the terrible semi-final defeats in 2000 and 2008, we really do now have something to build upon.
When you look at men like Sam Burgess, James Graham, Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins, Chris Hill and George Burgess, you can see them lifting a World Cup one day.
The important thing is to ensure that the old guard do not hang around for too long, which has happened too much in the past.
Kevin Sinfield had a superb game on Saturday, but this should be it for him at Test level. He admitted he won’t play in another World Cup, so why not retire now?
I also think that Rob Burrow, Ben Westwood, James Roby and Sean O’Loughlin should concentrate now on the end of their club careers. That’s not any criticism of their current level of performance – it should be obvious by now how much I rate O’Loughlin – but it the phrase “building for the next World Cup” is to mean anything, then we need to find more Chris Hills and get them in there.
Rugby League is a young man’s game and Super League is awash – more so than ever before in its 17-history – with great young players, so let’s use the next couple of years to get these guys in there.
That has to be the number-one priority. The game’s attitudes towards its young players has been poor for too long, and coaches have appeared to look for reasons not to give top young talent a chance.
Other priorities should include: bringing back Great Britain, so we don’t miss out on players like Lee Briers in the future or see any more shambolic eligibility arguments involving a great player like Danny Brough. If England had had those two fellas over the last four or five years, we might have won something by now.
I accept that we should use the separate home nations in World Cup years. But in other tournaments it should be Great Britain once again.
Sam Burgess should be our next Test captain. He is an unbelievable player who delivered a truly stunning performance against the Kiwis. It has been a pleasure to watch Sam play over the last few years and he has so many good years ahead of him.
We need to get more players into the NRL. It’s no coincidence that the Kiwis have enjoyed a glorious era when they stopped picking players from Super League.
But we don’t just need forwards out there – it’s important to get backs playing in the NRL too. Hopefully Sam Tomkins will be the first of many. He certainly needs a change in direction, because over the last six months he has been a pale shadow of the player we know he can be.
And we need to pick the right type of halfbacks. The Rangi Chase experiment failed miserably, and most of us could see that halfway through the 2011 Four Nations. Scrum-halves and stand-offs who rely on individual talent have never made it at international level in the summer era, so let’s take that on board.
We should be looking to build a team around Widdop.
I haven’t said this too many times in the summer era, but the future does look quite rosy.
First published in League Express, Monday 25th Nov 2013
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