OPINION: Can McNamara change England’s style to beat the Kiwis?

Martyn Sadler, the editor of League Express, wonders whether England coach Steve McNamara has what it takes to make the changes necessary to secure victory against New Zealand at Wigan on Saturday. This is an updated version of an article that was in Monday’s League Express.

England coach Steve McNamara came in for some harsh words on various forms of social media and in the more traditional media after Saturday’s England performance, when they went down 9-2 to New Zealand at the Olympic Stadium.

And it would be hard to argue that those criticisms weren’t justified.

It wasn’t that England played that badly. It’s just that they seemed to play without any attacking flair at all, even though their defence was only broken once.

How often in any Rugby League match do you see a team not make a single clean break? And yet if you look at the Opta statistics for the game you’ll see that England didn’t make a single clean break for the whole of the 80 minutes. To focus on that statistic as a disappointing one is to state the obvious. But why were England so uncreative?

It seems to come from an ultra-cautious approach to the game.

Our attacking players saw little of the ball, especially the sort of ball that might have given them the chance to test the Kiwi defence. As it was, England never posed the Kiwis any significant problems. And our kicking game just didn’t put New Zealand under any significant pressure.

McNamara had effectively selected two stand-offs in Gareth Widdop and George Williams. Neither player was able to impose himself.

Neither half-back had the change to stamp their authority on the game.
Neither half-back had the change to stamp their authority on the game.

The Kiwi halfbacks, even though they lacked experience, looked more confident, especially in the second half, when they secured several goal-line drop-outs.

Williams looks most at risk in terms of selection for Saturday’s series decider at Wigan, with McNamara having the options of Luke Gale and Matty Smith, who offer flair and experience respectively.

I would like to see Gale given a run in the side. He kicks well, he takes the ball to the line, he supports well and he is light on his feet. In my opinion those qualities explain why he won this season’s Albert Goldthorpe Medal, and they are just what England need in the middle of the field.

But it isn’t just at halfback where McNamara needs to make changes. I also think the threequarters need shaking up. Jermaine McGillvary has earned a place on the right wing, which is his natural position, unlike Joe Burgess, who normally plays on the left and steps off his left foot.

In the 57th minute of Saturday’s game Burgess had a rare opportunity that came from a Kallum Watkins offload and a smart pass by Zak Hardaker. He couldn’t take it, and I wonder whether McGillvary would have done.

So I would like to see McGillvary on the right wing, partnered by his club mate Leroy Cudjoe, with Watkins moved to left centre, while I would move John Bateman back into the pack or onto the bench.

I just can’t see the sense in having a makeshift club centre playing at centre for England. Bateman is potentially a great backrower or loose forward, but he isn’t a centre.

The most frustrating thing about the game at the Olympic Stadium is that we missed an opportunity to thrill a big new audience with the quality of the rugby we could and should have played.

The Olympic Stadium
“We missed an opportunity to thrill a big new audience” Martyn Sadler believes Rugby League missed out on the chance to impress at the Olympic Stadium.

How many spectators were seeing a major Rugby League game for the first time? And how many of them will want to see another one after that stodgy performance?

In life generally you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.