IT is difficult to gauge exactly where the England rugby league team currently sits as it heads into the new year.
That is not me being unnecessarily ambiguous but simply a result of the lack of genuine testing through the previous 12 months.
Through no fault of their own, England’s hopelessly one-sided autumn internationals against Wales and France were hugely inadequate as both a preparation for the 2013 World Cup and also as an indicator of how they may fare during the tournament to be held on these shores.
We are certainly none the wiser as to whether Steve McNamara’s squad have the capability of dethroning New Zealand and overcoming their traditional nemesis Australia.
That aside, though, there have been plenty of encouraging signs.
The emergence of Kallum Watkins on the international scene is perhaps the most exciting development.
It would be unwise to heap too much pressure on the Leeds Rhinos player’s young shoulders but it is undeniable that if he can stay fit and healthy in the 12 months ahead, the athletic Watkins can finally rid England of their age-old weakness – a paucity of truly dangerous centres.
With Brisbane Broncos’ Jack Reed securing another campaign of NRL experience under his belt, McNamara should have a three-quarter pairing that, for once, can really cause some destruction.
Who provides the ammunition remains up in the air, however.
Kevin Sinfield – a perfect choice as England’s new captain – will fill one of the half-back roles with Rangi Chase appearing to be a front-runner as his partner as he usurped Warrington’s Richie Myler for the autumn internationals final.
But the enigmatic Castleford star has been unpredictable with his performances this year and desperately needs some consistency to prove he has not just the ability but temperament to cope at the highest level.
Chase will also be aware, of course, that McNamara has Gareth Widdop to call upon, an intriguing player who has enhanced his growing reputation after nailing down the Melbourne Storm No 6 jersey this term as they went on to lift the NRL title.
It would be hard for the England chief to ignore his presence although there is also a growing clamour for the England coach to pair Sinfield with his Leeds colleague Danny McGuire given the undoubted success they have achieved together at club level.
Up front, England are looking as virile as ever – their forward strength always stands up against the best the southern hemisphere giants have to offer.
Indeed, it may be stronger than ever when you analyse the growing depth McNamara has to play with: NRL-based Sam Burgess and James Graham plus Huddersfield’s Eorl Crabtree, Warrington’s Ben Westwood and Saints’ Jon Wilkin.
There could be some bolters, too, although by the time the two Exiles games come around in June – England’s only warm-ups – McNamara will know who the majority of his first-choice 17 are for that World Cup opener against Australia in Cardiff on October 26.