England will aim to use their 2016 Four Nations Series failure to drive them to success in the World Cup, according to assistant coach Denis Betts.
Wayne Bennett experienced a disappointing start to his tenure as head coach when England failed to even reach the final 12 months ago, despite having home advantage, but Betts says the plan all along was to peak for the World Cup.
“What this group have done together has brought us to this place,” said Betts after England’s final team run at Melbourne’s AAMI Park ahead of today’s opening game against Australia.
“The World Cup has always been the goal, it’s why the coach is here, to get England into a World Cup final with a possibility of being the team that wins it.
“We wanted to win the Four Nations last year, but that experience is the strength of this group now.”
Bennett has hinted that he would be satisfied with an honourable defeat in the opening group game, insisting that his team will be at their best in time for the knockout stage, but Betts says the aim is to beat the Kangaroos twice in a tournament for the first time since the last Ashes triumph of 1970.
“Nothing’s won or lost tomorrow,” he said. “We will get better as we go through the tournament.
“We haven’t beaten Australia twice in a tournament, whether it be an Ashes series or a World Cup, for a long time and that’s got to be the benchmark.”
Betts was in the Great Britain team that gained a landmark win in Melbourne in 1992 and he was the last man to lead England into a World Cup final, some 22 years ago when they lost to the Kangaroos.
“My worst day and my best day were both on the same day,” he recalled. “I was captain of England in a World Cup final, walking out at Wembley with my family in the stand.
“I felt we were good enough to win that tournament, but I was disappointed in the team’s overall performance. It was a chance that went missing. We just didn’t perform on the day and that lives with me.
“Nobody thought we wouldn’t be in a World Cup final from that day to this. Twenty-two years is a long, long time to be out of that situation. We might only get one chance and this might be it.”
St Helens prop Alex Walmsley, who was absent from training earlier in the week, will make his England debut off the bench after climbing from his sick bed to take part in the captain’s run.
“He’s mentally tough. Come his stint tomorrow, I don’t think it will matter where he was 24 or 48 hours earlier or what he was dying of.
“He knows his job, he’s been around the team and has been involved in all the training sessions up to last week. He knows what responsibility he has and he’s got some energy about him. He’s excited and it’s nice to see a fellow that big who wants to carry the ball as hard as he does involved in the group.”
Australia coach Mal Meninga admits defeat against England would represent a great start for the tournament.
The Kangaroos have won 10 of the previous 14 World Cups and are overwhelming favourites to retain the trophy they won at Old Trafford when the 2017 tournament reaches its climax in Brisbane on December 2.
The opening heavyweight fixture has been given added spice with Meninga going up against arch-rival Bennett and the Kangaroos chief says England’s head coach would draw huge satisfaction from drawing first blood in Melbourne.
“It would be enormous for him,” said Meninga, who claimed during the 2016 Four Nations Series that Bennett is still after his job. “It would be a great start for the tournament in general.
“England will probably think we are at our most vulnerable tomorrow night and we’re prepared for that.
“We’re favourites for the tournament and with that comes some added pressure. If we do get beaten, other teams will probably feel we’re vulnerable as well.”
Asked why he believes England will consider his side to be vulnerable, Meninga said: “We haven’t played together for a while and, always with the first game of the series, you’re not quite sure of the combinations.
“You could be a bit clunky. We’ve got a few blokes who haven’t played for a while.”
Meninga has brought in North Queensland utility player Michael Morgan at stand-off to replace the injured Johnathan Thurston, but says having five Melbourne players in his side, including captain Cameron Smith, will help with cohesion.
Their presence is set to help draw a near-capacity 30,000 crowd for what could be the last chance to see veterans Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk playing together on their home ground.
“It’s a chance for all fans to get out there and watch three of the best players the game has ever seen.”
While Australia continue to rely on the spine of Slater, Smith and Cronk, Meninga believes the game will be determined by the performance of the two packs.
Hull FC star utility back Jake Connor has signed a new deal to keep him at the club until the end of 2020.
Connor, 23, joined from Huddersfield Giants.