FOR once, England’s rugby league side can enter a new year on the back of some tangible success.
They defeated the world’s No 1-ranked team New Zealand this autumn in a three-match series, finally delivering on years of promise.
Indeed, it was the first time the national side had prospered over a series or at a tournament since Great Britain whitewashed the Kiwis 3-0 back in 2007.
This campaign was much tighter; after England prospered in Hull, New Zealand kept them tryless at the Olympic Stadium to win the second Test 9-2 and set up a sold-out decider at Wigan, which the hosts duly claimed.
With all that in mind, and given the Kiwis are also reigning Four Nations champions, you would think Steve McNamara’s stock would be at its highest value yet and that a new contract for the national boss would have been swiftly agreed and signed.
However, almost seven weeks after overseeing that Test series success, his future is still very much up in the air.
McNamara’s deal expired at the end of the Kiwi contests and neither he nor his employers, the Rugby Football League, have said anything concrete about what will happen next other than the governing body stating “we will sit down with Steve at an appropriate time in the coming months to discuss the progress of the England programme and the national team and to talk about the future”.
The RFL added that “it is the appropriate and responsible way to proceed and both parties are entirely comfortable with this arrangement”. It is thought those discussions will take place early in the new year.
Possibly, then, given McNamara has stated how much he loves the job he combines with that of Sydney Roosters assistant, even that series success has not fully convinced the powers-that-be he is the right man to take them on into the 2016 Four Nations here and the 2017 World Cup Down Under.
The former Bradford Bulls head coach has been in the role since succeeding Tony Smith in 2010 and, ahead of the autumn contests, had been under some pressure to deliver positive results.
In 2014, England had fallen agonisingly short in both their Four Nations games against New Zealand and Australia, just as they had done similarly in the 2013 World Cup semi-final against the Kiwis at Wembley, still viewed by many as the national side’s best performance under McNamara’s command.
There was no room for a repeat of such near-misses this year and the hosts, admittedly, did earn that Test triumph.
However, some people were left distinctly underwhelmed by the whole affair.
At times, England’s pack was as dominant as it has ever been, the likes of James Graham, Tom Burgess and Chris Hill particularly robust up front, but there was little backplay of note to cheer.
In fact, during the entire three-Test series, not a single try was scored by England’s backs, a sobering thought even given some of the difficult conditions in which the games were played,
In fairness, they did not always receive much ball given their forwards were so effective but, when they did, their style often looked laboured and stilted especially compared to the skills and pace showcased by the dynamic tourists.
One question posed is have England got enough in their locker, enough variation to their play, to defeat both New Zealand and Australia over a full tournament as they must do when the Four Nations is hosted here in 2016?
Yet McNamara – never afraid to try new talent – blooded more youngsters this season, boldly going with Super League’s young player of the year George Williams at half-back for the opening two Tests as well as giving debuts to fellow Wigan Warriors players John Bateman, 22, and 21-year-old Joe Burgess.
There were some shock decisions along the way, such as excluding Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton from his plans, and – more a frustration than a shock – not handing Castleford scrum-half Luke Gale his debut at any point over the autumn despite having named the creative No 7 in his 24-man squad.
That said, McNamara opted for Wigan’s experienced Matty Smith in the decider against New Zealand and he duly claimed man-of-the-match honours. Point proved.
Furthermore, England were missing two of their finest players against the Kiwis who should, hopefully, return to their ranks for 2016 – Sam Tomkins and George Burgess. On top of that, there is the enticing prospect of seeing Sam Burgess back playing for England once more after his ill-fated dabble with rugby union.
Having Slammin’ Sam back is a huge lift for England’s hopes of glory at the Four Nations.
He left South Sydney having been voted the international player of the year at the end of 2014 and with good reason; the juggernaut forward has such an imposing presence and skills to match.
If he can quickly recapture his best after that sojourn in union, England will be strengthened considerably.
With Brisbane Broncos centre Jack Reed hopefully putting his injury problems behind him and the likely addition of Alex Walmsley, the bullocking St Helens prop and Man of Steel candidate who would have debuted against the Kiwis if not injured, England will have further quality upon which to call.
Question marks remain about their half-back resources – is Gareth Widdop the answer at No 6? And how do you fit Tomkins and Leeds Rhinos’ Zak Hardaker into the same side?
The biggest question mark, though, is whether McNamara will continue. He will hope he gets that chance as, with the players at his disposal, a maiden Four Nations title or first World Cup since 1972 remains achievable.