CONFIDENT England coach Steve McNamara says his side’s belief they can win the Gillette Four Nations is “pushing through the roof”.
The former Bradford Bulls chief will tackle the biggest game of his career when taking charge against old nemesis Australia in tomorrow night’s sold-out Elland Road final.
While it is a massive test of the young coach’s own credentials as the national side look to secure their first tournament success in 39 years, there is also perhaps mounting pressure on his side after they raised hopes with such an encouraging victory over world champions New Zealand.
Since England knocked out the holders last Saturday almost 20,000 tickets have been sold, the last remaining few snapped up by yesterday lunchtime meaning there will be a 34,174 capacity attendance.
But, although the Kangaroos remain overwhelming favourites to reclaim the crown they lost to the Kiwis last year, McNamara insists his players are fast learning what it takes to succeed on the biggest stage and there will be no fear.
While England fell 36-20 against Australia at Wembley a fortnight ago, he feels there is a sense of unfinished business.
“Before that game we spoke a lot about the genuine belief we had and I think that was just re-enforced after the game as well,” said McNamara, bolstered by the return of Gareth Ellis from injury.
“The players were desperate to get another crack at these because they really believe they’ve got a great opportunity.
“They know they could have performed better in that game – we troubled Australia but could have done more – and believe if we do that we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity to win this one.”
McNamara was assistant to Tony Smith when England faced the Kangaroos in the final at the same Leeds venue two years ago.
Then, they were ahead approaching the hour mark but faded as the tourists typically and ruthlessly capitalised on errors in the last quarter to record a 46-16 victory which did little to illustrate the true competitiveness of the fixture.
However, McNamara says his squad have learned from that experience and will be far better prepared to make the most of any winning position tomorrow.
“We’ve got some young players now who are starting to rack up six or seven appearances against Australia and New Zealand,” he said.
“That makes a huge difference. In days gone by you’d play three Tests against Australia in an Ashes series, another two against New Zealand and a load of tour games.
“Quite easily you’d rack up a big number of games and get a lot of international experience in a short space of time whereas nowadays some of our youngsters – people like Tim Briscoe, Sam Tomkins and Ryan Hall – only play Australia and New Zealand once each year, twice if they get to a final.
“But their exposure to all this and experience of it all is now increasing and the belief they’ve now got is pushing through the roof.
“Putting that together with a load of senior players who have done it over a long period of time and it’s a pretty potent mix.”
McNamara refuses to use the nation’s frustrating long wait for victory as a motivational tool and has tried to shield his players from that looming shadow during the build-up.
“We all understand how many years it’s been since we beat Australia in a tournament and the last time we picked up a trophy,” he said.
“But rather than getting obsessed with that we’d rather concentrate on what needs to be done to make sure we do play well,” he said.
“A lot of that is now in the bank. The key for us has been to concentrate on the process of getting the team right to play well.
“They’re refreshed and ready for their final session on Friday – and then to play.”
There is some fear among the Australia media that the added pressure on the tourists to succeed – it is their illustrious captain Darren Lockyer’s final match before retiring – could prove fatal to their own chances.
However, McNamara insisted: “They’re too professional for that.
“We’ve got Adrian Morley playing his 50th cap which is a fantastic achievement and they’ve got Lockyer who is one of the game’s legends.
“But it’s a massive prize at stake at the end of it all and both groups are too professional now to get embroiled in that.
“We were pretty controlled, measured and patient against the Kiwis, all nice steady words to describe the performance.
“But we really liked some of the things we did the week before (against Australia) and think if we put some of those pieces together from both then it will probably be a perfect mix.”