THE 2013 Rugby League World Cup gets underway today with England head coach Steve McNamara already under intense scrutiny after walking out of his final press conference in Cardiff.
He took offence to questions about the non-selection of prop James Graham for this afternoon’s opener against Australia and, after growing increasingly irate, departed after just six minutes of a tetchy meeting with journalists at the Millennium Stadium.
It had already been the toughest week of McNamara’s coaching career following the embarrassing friendly defeat to Italy last Saturday and his subsequent decision to send Gareth Hock home from their training camp after the second-row broke an alcohol ban.
Hock argued he was harshly treated and claimed afterwards that “six or seven” players had joined him on a night out after the Italy debacle.
When McNamara omitted Graham from the 19-man squad on Thursday to face Australia, speculation grew that – given he is one of England’s leading players – he too had been punished for flouting that ban.
The England coach was expected to confirm that yesterday following his side’s last training run under the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium, especially as Graham looked fit and well while taking part in the session.
However, appearing agitated from the start, McNamara continually refused to respond to questions.
When asked if he could say why Graham – the 28-year-old Canterbury Bulldogs prop who has been so effective again in the Australian NRL this season – was not in the squad, he replied: “There are seven very good players not playing this week.
“There are 17 that will play and another seven international standard players who are in the squad who aren’t picked.
“I’m certainly not going to talk about any individuals among that seven.
“They are all great players and great people and I’m sure they will have a part to play in the rest of the tournament.”
A reporter asked for ‘clarification’ on the Graham situation, but McNamara responded: “I just said I’m not going to speak about any individual. I just said that to you.
“It’s about the whole group, the unity of the group and the strength of what we’ve got, and that’s what it is.
“I think the world of that squad, every single one of them, and they will all play a part during this World Cup.”
Another reporter suggested that supporters would be confused by the absence of the ex-England captain and McNamara snapped: “Look, I’m not going to answer any more questions on it. If you want to continue asking questions then we will wrap up now.
“If you want to talk about the game then I’m fine to do so.
“I’ve just said, if you want to carry on with that questioning then we will stop now.
“If you want to carry on asking questions then let’s continue. That’s your last chance now.”
McNamara did briefly talk about the game, but when a reporter asked if the subject of Hock was off-limits too, he rose from his chair and abruptly ended the press conference saying: “Yeah, course it is.
“I’ve got to go boys anyway because the bus is going. Cheers, see you tomorrow.”
Opinion was divided last night over whether McNamara’s performance suggested England’s World Cup bid was in chaos before it had even begun or if it was all part of a master plan to intensify the siege mentality captain Kevin Sinfield had spoken about at the start of the week.
It certainly generated plenty of publicity on the eve of the tournament which starts with a double-header in Cardiff, Wales and Italy following England’s game.
Former Bradford Bulls coach McNamara, who was employed in 2010 with the overall aim of winning this tournament, knows he will ultimately be judged on what he achieves in the World Cup.
No side from these shores has lifted it since Great Britain in 1972, but many observers have already written them off.
Australia coach Tim Sheens is not doing so.
“They’ve got some speed,” he said. “They’ve got skills, their spine is experienced, they’ve got a good forward pack, good rotation and I think they will really test us there.
“They have one of the world’s best players in Sam Burgess and certainly young (Sam) Tomkins.
“I’m sure by the end of a year in the NRL he’ll have proved he can do the job in both hemispheres.
“Like us, they are a side with dangers all over the field. Our guys know you can’t afford a poor Test match.”