ORDINARILY, failing to even at least reach the final of a World Cup when hosting the tournament would leave most England rugby league fans crying disaster.
That is true, moreover, given the current side was the best prepared in history ahead of this autumn’s record-breaking competition as it looked to end a 41-year wait for success.
But defeat in a truly epic semi-final to New Zealand, a loss which saw so many dreams seep away in the most heartbreaking fashion, has – after that initial sense of utter despair – instead had a cathartic and invigorating effect.
Admittedly, Shaun Johnson skipping away to steal a Kiwi victory with just 20 seconds remaining at a stunned Wembley will go down as one of the most dramatic sporting images of 2013.
But, perversely, that 20-18 loss has left many England supporters upbeat looking ahead to 2014.
Coach Steve McNamara endured a turbulent campaign not only over off-field indiscipline by some of his players and how he subsequently handled that with the media but also given the large question marks over selections and some tepid displays.
However, having pushed eventual winners Australia close in the opening game, there was the clearest sign yet of what McNamara was trying to achieve when, against New Zealand, his side produced one of this country’s finest performances in decades.
McNamara’s stock actually rose; he has since been employed as assistant coach at NRL champions Sydney Roosters and signed a new deal with England which will see him continue part-time.
The ex-Bradford Bulls coach has laid great foundations in his three-and-a-half years as a full-time coach, not least in setting up an elite training squad and fostering a ‘Club England’ spirit at their Loughborough base. However, it suits everyone that the 42-year-old now returns to club coaching, especially in the cut-and-thrust of the Australian game.
On the field, having finally ditched the Rangi Chase experiment, Gareth Widdop came in at stand-off against the Kiwis and showed the sort of quality which will have persuaded McNamara to give the patient NRL -based Yorkshireman a deserved run in that crucial position.
The rest of the squad is well set to flourish when England head Down Under for the Four Nations next autumn; Sam Burgess has underlined his greatness, messrs Graham, O’Loughlin and Tomkins are genuine world stars and there is plenty of youth waiting to explode.
The big question is whether captain Kevin Sinfield – 34 when the Four Nations starts – continues. Let’s hope the Leeds Rhinos legend decides to give it one more shot.