NOT that it needed any hype but news that New Zealand are now officially ranked the No 1 team in the world has only heightened the sense of expectation ahead of this autumn’s three Test series with England.
The fact that it means the arrogant Australians, by virtue of a 26-12 ANZAC defeat against the Kiwis in Brisbane last month, have been knocked off their perch is simply a nice by-product of this whole development.
Whether Tim Sheens, Australia’s under-pressure head coach, survives the aftermath of that defeat to take them on into next year’s Four Nations remains to be seen.
Afterall, it is the first time in fully 61 years that the Kangaroos have lost three successive games against their old rivals.
That just shows, once more, how potent and richly talented this New Zealand side really is having not only won the Four Nations last year but now beaten Australia in their annual Test match.
All of which means, even taking home advantage into the equation, England have a significant test of their own abilities facing them when they take on Stephen Kearney’s side at Hull, London’s Olympic Stadium and Wigan at the end of this season.
Given we are more than halfway through the Super League season and well into the NRL campaign, too, Steve McNamara will already be weighing up his options
It will be intriguing to see if he veers too far away from the norm and those who served him in last year’s ultimately disappointing Four Nations Down Under.
Granted, England made progress in some areas during that tournament and the majority of them do probably warrant another shot.
But the national coach must be tempted to bring in some fresh blood, too.
Unfortunately, most of the players who warrant a crack are probably likely to miss out as England are already so well-served in that area.
Adam Cuthbertson, the off-loading Australian who has been an instant hit for Leeds Rhinos since joining from Newcastle Knights this season, is keen to play – the 30-year-old qualifies through his Manchester-born father – but with the Burgess twins, Chris Hill and James Graham already present, McNamara is not short in that position.
That is also why St Helens’ powerhouse Alex Walmsley, who has winded his way to the top from an altogether different path via Dewsbury Celtic, student rugby league and Batley Bulldogs, is also likely to miss out despite being Super League’s top metre maker with over 2000 already.
Although Leeds wingers Ryan Hall and Tom Briscoe have been injured much of late, the former, at least, will be in McNamara’s side come the Kiwis.
That leaves the other slot likely to be contended for by Wigan duo Joe Burgess, the league’s top scorer, and another capped player Josh Charnley, though he has been omitted at club level recently due to the form of another Wiganer, youngster Dom Manfredi, who as well as being a prolific try-scorer has also bust more tackles than anyone else in the division.
If selection is on form, and he continues at his current rate, he has to be included but that remains unlikely.
Of the other leading performers this season, Stevie Ward has come of age for Leeds after some injury-ravaged campaigns.