“They’re not superhuman, not at all; just another body – two arms and two legs.”
Elliott Whitehead, the former Bradford Bulls second-row, now of Canberra Raiders and ready to line up for his country against New Zealand today, sums up the situation quite succinctly.
He is one of the more recent Englishman to have headed Down Under to experience life in the NRL only to quickly realise the southern hemisphere competition is not actually inundated with freakishly talented players far more gifted than those on these shores.
For decades that has been rattled off as one of the predominant reasons the national side here continually falls behind at international level.
However, as England set out to win a first major tournament since the Lions lifted a World Cup in 1972, he knows more than most it is pure myth and hyperbole.
Whitehead has been a hit for Canberra in his first season since leaving Catalans Dragons, just like England hooker Josh Hodgson, his Raiders colleague who was named one of the NRL’s finest players in 2016, his second campaign there after a switch from Hull KR.
Indeed, they are two of eight NRL-based players in Wayne Bennett’s side to face the Kiwis at Huddersfield, looking to build on their Test series win over the world’s No 1 ranked team achieved 12 months ago.
Whitehead told The Yorkshire Post: “I’ve really enjoyed my first year with Canberra and settled in pretty quick which did make it easier to do my job on the field.
“I see what our lads have been saying, though, who’ve played there before.
“Don’t get me wrong – every week in the NRL you know you’re in for a tough game.
“I don’t want to disrespect Super League but sometimes, if you’re a top side, you might go to Wakefield thinking it might be a little bit easier. But every week in the NRL you have to turn up and give 100 per cent or you probably won’t win that game.
“But they’re not superhuman, not at all; just another body – two arms and two legs.”
“We’ve some great players and quite a lot of us play in the NRL comp’ now. People say they’re a lot better than us but I don’t believe they are.
“Playing over there for this last year I know there’s some quality players in Super League who could easily go over in that competition and dominate it.
“So I don’t see why we – England – can’t go out and win a major competition. But first we’ve got New Zealand on Saturday and we have to prove we can compete at that level again after what we did last year.”
It is the third successive season Whitehead has faced the Kiwis. He made his international debut against them during the 2014 Four Nations in Dunedin when England were controversially denied victory in a 16-14 defeat. The Yorkshireman, a forceful wide runner, then started all three of last year’s series and is expected to do so again today.
Whitehead, meanwhile, has enjoyed working under coaching guru Wayne Bennett, the legendary Australian who he has witnessed in the NRL – where he leads Brisbane Broncos – but is now plotting England’s pursuit of world domination.
“Before I met him I thought he was a little bit moody in the media but I think that is just how he is and how he comes across,” said the 27-year-old. “But in person, Wayne’s a really good guy and has a lot of time for his players.
“As long as you’re honest with him he’s a lot of time for you. He’s been good and, for me, he’s just told me to work on my basics.
“He’s grabbed me, John (Bateman) and Liam (Farrell) – as we all play the same position – and just told us to practice our basic lines which we run week in, week out. Sometimes, before, we probably didn’t practice them as we know we can do them. But this week we’ve all practiced our basic skills – and all realised we should be doing them more often.”
There is good reasoning behind that; at the elite level the need to execute plays perfectly is paramount and, for all English players have undoubtedly risen to the levels of the international elite recently, arguably they have not always demonstrated that clinical composure when it mattered most. Perhaps Bennett – who assisted the Kiwis when they won the World Cup in 2008 – will eke it out of them but it is crucial his side start with a win today.
Whitehead, who emerged through the Bradford academy to play more than 1oo games for his hometown club, obviously knows the opponents well.
“They’ve got a great team,” he said. “Their pack is unbelievable with Jesse Bromwich and Jason Taumalolo then the two back-row’s Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris. You can name everyone in that team and say they’re good players.
“It will be a really good test for us but I’m sure we can stand up to that test and get the job done.”