ENGLAND open their Ladbrokes Four Nations campaign against the world’s No 1 ranked side New Zealand today – but already their game with Australia in just over a fortnight is beginning to take centre stage.
It is not that there is no appetite for this afternoon’s fixture in Huddersfield.
It is, afterall, a 24,000 sell-out at John Smith’s Stadium as Wayne Bennett’s England prepare for what could be a colossal battle, especially between two formidable packs.
Furthermore, the Four Nations champions, of course, are still miffed having lost a three-game Test series to England here 12 months ago while the return in home colours of Sam Burgess, the talismanic Yorkshireman, after his ill-fated spell in rugby union only adds to the sense of occasion.
However, much of the backdrop to the tournament has been a simmering battle between England’s new coach Bennett – the 66-year-old deemed by many as the greatest tactician the sport has known – and Australia counterpart Mal Meninga.
Meninga announced when the Kangaroos arrived in the UK last week that his rival “wants my job but hasn’t got it.”
Bennett was appointed England coach in February having missed out on the Kangaroos role – which he held before in 2004-05 – to the Queensland State of Origin chief last December.
One of the reasons Meninga, the 56-year-old former Australia captain, was successful was because Bennett remains Brisbane Broncos chief and the Australian Rugby League would not allow an NRL head coach to take over on a part-time basis.
However, he certainly seems to be irked, having penned a lengthy Courier-Mail column discussing Bennett’s “year-long, persistent and ongoing objection” to him being appointed “and his obvious frustration at being overlooked”.
Meninga – whose side opened the tournament with a 54-12 win against Scotland at Hull KR last night – argues Bennett cannot “accept the decision” and has been trying to “undermine my authority” ever since.
With mind-games clearly in full swing, the England coach was yesterday more concerned with today’s game, admittedly giving little away in his usual taciturn manner.
However, as the seven-time NRL Grand Final-winning coach seeks to bring glory to these shores for the first time since Great Britain’s 1972 World Cup win, he must privately be elated by Meninga’s detailed response.
Wigan Warriors duo – second-row Liam Farrell and half-back George Williams – are the ones to drop out of Bennett’s 19-man squad for the challenge of the Kiwis.
Castleford Tigers scrum-half Luke Gale deservedly gets the nod after his debut in last week’s 40-6 win over France in Avignon.
“I’ve only named a 19 because that’s the rules here; I’ve already settled on a 17,” Bennett said at the captain’s run in Huddersfield.
“I think George is a very talented player; it was pretty close, but we’re going this way at the moment, so it’s up to the boys to perform now.”
Bennett has included all three Burgess brothers ahead of an anticipated huge forward battle for a game that could prove pivotal, with the losers facing an uphill battle to reach the final at Anfield on November 20.
“It’s important to play well first and foremost,” he said.
“They’ve got a big forward pack, they’re very mobile and they’ve some quality players.
“We’ll have to stop them there and we give ourselves a chance if we can do that.”
It is a sign of England’s encouraging strength in depth, though, that few people are lamenting the loss of either injured Sam Tomkins, the world’s most expensive player, or Sean O’Loughlin, their crocked captain.
Indeed, a third Wigan player – Farrell – delivered a brilliant man-of-the-match performance in the Grand Final earlier this month yet cannot force his way in.
New Zealand, meanwhile, have lost their last three matches and could surrender their top ranking spot during the tournament.
They have scored just six points in their two meetings with Australia this year, but head coach David Kidwell, who takes charge for the second time following the departure of Stephen Kearney, believes he has solved those problems.
He is also acutely aware of the threats posed by the eight-strong NRL contingent in England’s 17 and says he has done his homework on the Super League-based players.
“It’s a really strong competition over here,” he said. “Mixed in with some NRL players, it’s a very dangerous pack and team. We’ve to be on our A game (today).”
We shouldn’t be scared of Kiwis, says Whitehead: Page 7.