In conversation with a coach last week I suggested that having the Super League Grand Final two weeks before England start their World Cup campaign would damage the national side’s hopes of succeeding.
The coach, rather sarcastically, replied: “Well done for stating the bleeding obvious.”
Meanwhile Shaun Wane revealed in a media briefing on Thursday that he was looking to organise a pre-World Cup game ten days before the tournament begins, possibly against Fiji, although that remains to be confirmed.
But it would mean not being able to select those who play in Super League’s Old Trafford showpiece for the proposed warm-up game.
Covid-19 has, so far, restricted Wane to just one get-together with his group of players. And he has yet to have his first game in charge after last autumn’s Test series against Australia was cancelled.
He hasn’t even been able to get onto the field with his side yet and, in reality, the prospect of him getting valuable contact time with them, which would entail mixing a whole host of bubbles all at once, is set to be a logistical nightmare through the year. He has, instead, like many of us, relied on Zoom to get his messages across.
By the time June comes around, Wane will finally get to do what he loves to do – coach a Rugby League team. England will play the revived Exiles in a warm-up game, probably on Saturday 26 June. After that he will have to wait until October to do it again.
“From my point of view, the game is very important to me and the plans for the World Cup. I want the Exiles team to be was strong as possible. I need that game to be like a Test match,” says Wane.
But the cards seem stacked against England already, although Wane absolutely refuses to see it that way. He is resolutely setting his face against having a defeatist mindset.
No Grand Final players for the warm-up game? They’ll have been prepared by the Grand Final.
No opportunities to get on the field with his group?
“I can get all my backrowers all on Zoom at the same time, showing them what I think is a perfect backrower style of play. Can you imagine trying to do that without Zoom,” is his counter.
Wane dismisses anything that could be seen as an excuse for England not lifting the Paul Barrière Trophy. He has not asked for the Super League season to be shortened in order to allow him more preparation with his players, even though it’s glaringly obvious to everyone that it should happen.
“If I ask for one and I don’t get it, it could be deemed that I’d use it (as an excuse) and I don’t want that,” insists Wane.
“The powers-that-be are going to make the right decision for the right reasons and on the back of that we’ll make sure the players are in the right condition for the opening game at Newcastle.
“The longer I have with the players the better, there’s no question about that. But whatever happens we’ll make the most of it. There are no excuses from us and it’s the same for all the staff.
“We cannot and will not have any excuses. Now we can’t meet our players, but neither can the other countries. The only way we can prepare is to have these Zoom meetings and give the players the information they need.
“We just have to make the most of it. I have very, very good staff and I’m very happy with what we’ve got.”
Super League clubs are due to meet later this month to discuss a number of options for the season, including a shortened season.
But it feels like, whatever the outcome, it won’t make any real difference to the former Wigan coach. His focus on World Cup glory has, by his own admission, become totally single minded.
“When I was at Wigan it was the Grand Final in October and what we’d do to make sure we got there and making some brutal decisions along the way. And that’s how I’m thinking about November and Old Trafford, considering what we need to do as staff and also putting it on the players to make sure they’re playing in that game and we deliver a win.
“I’m obsessed with winning the World Cup.”
And he’s loving the challenge it brings too. The tournament is over nine months away, but preparation continues daily, whether it be logistics, analysis or finalising his backroom staff.
“I’ve had meetings this morning from 7am with games and footage and I’ll speak with the players about that. I’ll get out with my dogs for an hour now and then come back and speak to the players tonight.
“Every day I go to bed and we’ve improved as a team and a country. If we can do that every day through to October then we’ve done our job.
“Today alone I’m going to be speaking for half-an-hour with Paul McShane, Mike Cooper and Jonny Lomax. Even when things are back to normal I’ll still be doing a lot of this. I’ve actually enjoyed it. I’m fed up of not getting out enough, but I’ve enjoyed this process.”
One element Wane admits he has enjoyed is his interaction with sportsmen from other football codes, including former England football captain John Terry, who is now on the management team at Aston Villa.
“I’m doing a sporting director course two days a month,” explains Wane.
“I’m doing lots of Zoom calls with international footballers like John Terry and I’m having a few chats with him. I did a chat for UEFA coaching badge attendees and he was one of them. I spoke to him about our standards and I ask him questions regularly. I learn from him and he learns from me. Every day is a full day and I go to bed and I’ve learned something.
“He’s going to come up to training. He’s really keen and he’s very smart, he loves our way of thinking in Rugby League, and what we did at Wigan. He’s got a real understanding about Rugby League and he loves the game.
“He’s a very proud Englishman. Lee Westwood is another one and he’ll be getting involved with us. Lee is very individual in terms of the sport he plays, and John has played for England. I love speaking to people like that about how they train, what they do and what their standards are. I’m assuming that our players will have a buzz for that too and if they don’t, I want them to have an open mind about things like that.
“I also went to watch Jacksonville Jaguars train and they were asking us where we were from and what Rugby League was. We showed them a few games on the laptop, and they were screaming at their friends to come and watch this game, and asking us what the players wore. They couldn’t believe it when we said just a jersey. Their coaching staff couldn’t get enough of us, and it fascinates me how much people think of our game.”
The one thing Wane concedes he has been unable to cope with is his thirst for the practical elements of coaching and his frustration with not being able to put his ideas into practice.
“I can’t put it into words. The stress of having to win a game and look at it individually, then putting together a game plan, presenting it and putting it into practice it; I miss that so much, I can’t tell you.”
For now, Wane is looking forward to scouring Super League’s talent, with the hope that players already on his radar, and those on the periphery, will make life difficult for him.
“I hope I have a tough month before I have to pick my final squad,” he says.
“But one thing I can promise with all my heart is that it will be the right selection of players who have done the business in this Super League season.”
He hopes those who were named in his initial group of players, but subsequently dropped out, will also return to the reckoning.
“I spoke to them all on Zoom and they were fantastic; they were brilliant and agreed with what I said.
“I was very, very honest and I have a belief that players want to know where they stand, and that you tell everybody everything. I did that with those players and I expect to put some of them back into the squad throughout the year.
“If Chris Hill and Jack Hughes are outstanding for Warrington, they will be back in. Whoever’s killing it towards the back end of this year, they will start for me in the opening match at Newcastle against Samoa and I’ve stressed that to every single player.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve played two Tests or 200 – if I believe you can win me that Test match, then you will play. I don’t tell lies, the players trust me and that’s what will happen.”
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