THERE is a hint of envy in England scrum-half Luke Gale’s voice as he talks about Kangaroos superstar Johnathan Thurston.
Not because he is necessarily jealous of his rival’s skill – although which half-back, after all, would not want to be able to do some of the things in the record-breaking three-time Golden Boot winner’s repertoire?
No, the Castleford Tigers player appears slightly miffed mainly because of the favourable conditions under which the illustrious Thurston is able to operate.
Ahead of Sunday’s Ladbrokes Four Nations encounter between their countries at London Stadium – a must-win fixture for England – Gale told The Yorkshire Post: “Thurston’s the best in the world and he’s proved that on numerous occasions.
“Not only that, I think the Aussies have the best triangular axis, too, with Cam Smith at nine and whoever plays the other half – (Cooper) Cronk, (James) Maloney – meaning it is just a great side.
“But the thing with them is they have played a lot of games together. Look at our six, seven and nine. Last Saturday was my first ever combination with George (Williams) and I’ve played two games with Hodgy (hooker Josh Hodgson); it is a work in progress.
“We’ve a good, young quality side here but we’ve to work hard and hope we improve. If we keep doing that we’ll get there.”
Obviously, the problem is there is little time for that work to progress and even less scope for it to falter.
England may well have only played three Tests in the last 12 months but if they get it wrong on Sunday, it could be another year before they can remedy their ills.
Welcome to the brutal world of Test match rugby league.
The axis Australia refer to have been in unison for so long it is no surprise everything they do is second nature.
Smith, Cronk and Thurston, of course, are the spine of Queensland’s State of Origin side who spend three weeks in camp each year and play three mid-season matches.
They have, generally, been in unison for state and country since 2012 while, of course, Smith and Cronk have been club-mates at Melbourne Storm for the last dozen years.
England’s half-backs and hookers can only dream of such familiarity and that should be remembered when criticism is applied for the fitful manner in which they have operated in this Four Nations against New Zealand – a 17-16 defeat – and Scotland.
Gale has started in all three games this autumn following his debut during the warm-up in France but is unsure whether he will be retained on Sunday when coach Wayne Bennett could produce his third different pairing in four outings.
There is little to choose between all three half-backs on the evidence so far in this tournament with Gareth Widdop, the St George-Illawarra co-captain left out of Saturday’s 38-12 win over the Scots, Wigan Warriors’ Williams, who was man-of-the-match in that fixture, and Gale all jostling for a place.
That there is no obvious pairing, though, brings its own problems for Bennett who must wish, given the scarcity of fixtures and time to gel, two of that trio had delivered displays which demanded their inclusion.
Gale, for one, wishes there was more time for England to spend together as a national side.
“Even after we played New Zealand in our first game we’d been together about 10 days but the Kiwis had already played two Tests this year v Australia,” he said.
“It’s massively different and I think what Wayne and the RFL are trying to do is get us on a more regular basis with internationals through the season and that can only help. With club football you’re with each other 24/7 and know each other inside out.
“As you can see, our combinations here need working on; we need to work out what works best for Hodgy’s game, my game and best for all the half-backs. That takes time. We’ll be looking to work on that over the coming months.”
Bennett has asked for the return of a mid-season international game next year for the first time since 2013 when the Exiles were England’s opponents and he also wants a two-week training camp before the season starts.
Gale admitted: “I don’t think clubs will be happy. It’s the age-old one of what comes first, club or country?
“Obviously, being a half-back, I’m a key player at Castleford so (coach) Daryl (Powell) wouldn’t be best pleased and the teams with more people in their squad they’d be displeased, too. It’s hard.
“But to get better as a country we do need more time together and that’s the hope.”