WHISPER it softly but there is a growing belief this could be the year England finally reclaim some authority in the world of international rugby league.
I know, I know. It has been said numerous times before in the four decades since any side from these shores last won a global tournament or even secured a Test series against Australia.
There have been countless near misses since the 1972 World Cup triumph in Lyon, hopes raised only to be dashed, invariably, by the ruthless Kangaroos.
But ahead of the Four Nations, which starts with a double-header in Brisbane this weekend, even some current players – who have more pertinent knowledge of the sport than any journalist or fan – have suggested that could possibly now change.
The basis of their assertion is in the fact Australia have seen so many players withdrawn before even opening their account against New Zealand, the second offering on Saturday morning after England tackle Samoa in the Suncorp Stadium.
Hearing Billy Slater had dropped out was music to England ears, but when Jarryd Hayne – the next brilliant full-back in line – made the shock announcement he was giving American football a try, it was like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Johnathan Thurston, the ludicrously gifted stand-off who recently became only the second player in history to win the celebrated Dally M medal a third time (Andrew Johns was the first) by sharing the 2014 award as the NRL’s best player with Hayne, revealed he would be absent, too.
Thankfully, for rugby league at least, the Queenslander has not ventured to the NFL, but just to a rest bay with a troubled shoulder.
Throw in the fact Paul Gallen, that gnarled prop and New South Wales captain who leads Australia’s pack so robustly, is missing due to the controversial doping bans incurred at Cronulla, and it is easy to see why Australia may for once be vulnerable.
That said, their depth of talent is frightening – Golden Boot winner Greg Inglis, no less, will play as a third-choice full-back – and, though Tim Sheens has named 10 debutants in his 24-man squad, they still start out as clear favourites to retain their 2011 title.
England, for their part, have nine potential debutants themselves, many of whom should be given the nod for their first appearance when Steve McNamara announces his Test side this morning.
Castleford Tigers hooker Daryl Clark is certain to be involved and ex-Bradford Bulls second-row Elliott Whitehead is hoping to earn a place in the 17, too, while the England coach must be tempted to throw Joe Burgess –the lightning-quick Wigan winger who turned 20 during last week’s flight to Australia – straight in to start versus Samoa.
England’s forwards are good enough to not only match but better both New Zealand’s and Australia’s, something proven in recent encounters, while a Samoan pack containing the likes of St Helens’ Mose Masoe and Frank Pritchard will ensure McNamara’s side are immediately battle-hardened for the greater challenges ahead.
Samoa, of course, may be distracted, too, given a number of their squad were questioned by police following an incident at a Brisbane nightclub early on Sunday morning and could even face criminal charges before the weekend.
But New Zealand, who broke English hearts with a last-minute World Cup semi-final win at Wembley almost 12 months ago, will certainly fancy their chances of atoning for the subsequent Old Trafford defeat to the Kangaroos.
Given their greater overall experience, Stephen Kearney’s team are well-primed to expose any weaknesses highlighted by Australia’s callowness.
All of which means England’s third game against the Kiwis in Dunedin could be so crucial for qualification for the Wellington final on November 15.
Nevertheless, this is their greatest chance in years.