ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara insists that his team is “on the cusp” of something brilliant as he prepares for his latest stab at glory.
The former Bradford Bulls chief is now in his fifth year in charge of the national team, although he is still waiting for some tangible success.
They host France at Leigh on Saturday ahead of the three-Test series with New Zealand, the Kiwis having ejected England from the Four Nations last year and also – in heartbreaking fashion – the 2013 World Cup following an epic semi-final at Wembley.
McNamara could give as many as four debuts at Leigh this weekend as his next bid for success gets underway. France should be dispatched easily enough but a series victory over a New Zealand side currently ranked No 1 in the world would certainly signify his finest achievement yet.
Speaking of his time in charge, the 44-year-old admitted: “I’ve got some really good memories.
“Sometimes it feels a long time since I began here but at others like it’s flown by. Our programme has moved on massively since the start and I’m really proud of that.
“Our overall programme and the development of us as a group and the strong two-team mentality that we spoke a lot about – being really passionate about your club but England too – I’m pleased with how that has worked.
“We are on the cusp at the minute.
“We’ve been really, really close to achieving something special in the last couple of tournaments and, hopefully, we’ll get across the line this time.”
Zak Hardaker, the Leeds Rhinos star and Steve Prescott Man of Steel winner, finally gets his chance against France and at full-back, too.
Considering his brilliant form this term for the treble-winners, there had been fierce debate about whether the 23-year-old should be selected ahead of Sam Tomkins – the incumbent who returns to Wigan from New Zealand Warriors in 2016.
However, no one still truly knows what McNamara’s preference is given Tomkins is out having not yet fully recovered from the knee injury that curtailed his NRL career.
Bizarrely, it will only be Hardaker’s second cap as, for one reason or another, he has not featured since scoring two tries on debut against Wales in 2012. McNamara has made one bold – but certainly refreshing – choice ahead of the French game with Wigan Warriors’ George Williams, the dynamic stand-off recently crowned Super League Young Player of the Year, set to make his debut.
He gets the nod ahead of his Warriors team-mate Matty Smith, who was No 7 at last year’s Four Nations, and Castleford Tigers’ uncapped scrum-half Luke Gale, who are both left out of the 19-man squad.
McNamara said Williams had been “sensational in the second half of the season” and the 20-year-old seems certain to pair up with St George Illawarra half-back Gareth Widdop.
Former Bradford second-row John Bateman is readied to debut after his fine campaign with Wigan as is Joe Burgess, the prolific Warriors winger who has kept untried Huddersfield Giants’ Jermaine McGillvary, Super League’s top try-scorer this season, out of the 19.
Ex-Warrington Wolves prop Mike Cooper, who like Burgess was a non-playing member of the 2014 Four Nations squad, is the fourth player hoping for a first cap in a fixture that England traditionally win quite handsomely and will clearly be less rigorous than what is to come against the revered Four Nations champions New Zealand.
On Tomkins’s fitness, McNamara said: “He’s good. He’s really on the right track and really close but we don’t want to push him until he’s absolutely 100 per cent.
“We need a fully 100 per cent fit Sam Tomkins to push himself into contention for next week and that’s the aim.”
McNamara says he has been impressed with all his 24-man squad so far at St George’s Park in Burton-on-Trent, acknowledging that selection was difficult.
England 19 v France: Bateman, J Burgess, T Burgess, Cooper, Cudjoe, Farrell, Ferres, Graham, Hall, Hardaker, Hill, Hodgson, O’Loughlin, Roby, Watkins, Westwood, Whitehead, Widdop.