England head coach Wayne Bennett has promised the three-Test series against New Zealand will be “equal” to State of Origin’s intensity and a crucial building block towards hopefully ending their World Cup drought in 2021.
Ahead of today’s opening Test at Hull’s KCOM Stadium there are some concerns about England’s international calendar ahead of that home tournament in three years.
They played the Kiwis in Denver in June, a groundbreaking fixture that was supposed to be repeated in 2019 and 2020 only for both governing bodies to fail to receive the agreed payment from promoter Jason Moore.
New Zealand decided instead to host Tonga next June, a passionate nation whose side almost beat England in the 2017 World Cup semi-final and are currently seeing their presence grow markedly on the biggest stage.
They sold-out the first game in their history against Australia in Auckland last week and there is a concern England – who played Samoa in Sydney in last year’s mid-season Test – may get left out of the loop, isolated with few suitable opponents in the northern hemisphere.
Bennett says the issue was discussed earlier this week and it was agreed, if France select their strongest team, that could be a solution. However, the 68-year-old, widely regarded as the greatest coach of all time following his record-breaking successes with Brisbane Broncos and Queensland State of Origin, insisted that is not the be-all and end-all.
“With the mid-year Test what’s important for us is that the guys all come together,” he said.
“It’s that we meet up with each other and build all the relationships that make teams.
“Teams aren’t made on individual ability, they’re made on relationships and trust and wanting to play with each other.
“This English team has got a great case of that. They have some pretty outstanding men in that group so that’s what I want to achieve and where we’ll play the other teams – Wales, Ireland, I’ll be happy to play them – we will get our competition.
“This three-week Test series against New Zealand will be equal to State of Origin.
“They won’t see it that way, but I can tell you now it will be.”
This is certainly a glowing endorsement of what lies ahead for successive weekends in Hull, Liverpool and Leeds. As strange as it sounds to the uninitiated, the annual mid-year three-game series between Queensland and New South Wales is viewed as the sport’s most physically and mentally demanding encounter, more so even than Test match football.
For Bennett to reason the forthcoming series against the Kiwis will be just as fierce an examination, it promises to be a thrilling few weeks.
England have not won the World Cup since doing so – as Great Britain – in 1972, falling narrowly 6-0 against Australia in last December’s Brisbane final.
Bennett knows what needs to be done to make that final step.
“I coached Origin – I coached seven Origin series – and I coached Australia,” he added.
“This series of three weeks and three games – three Test matches – will match Origin.
“That’s what we need. We need to play at that level at least once a year to bring these guys up to that level of intensity that where they can play an 80 minutes.
“We’re good at playing a 60 or a 70. In Australia we were probably good for 75.
“In the last five is when we could have won the game, but didn’t get the try we should have got and there was a couple of opportunities we could have taken.”
The Kiwis lost 36-18 in Denver in former Wigan coach Michael Maguire’s first game in charge, but beat Australia 25-24 earlier this month to end the world champions’ 13-game winning run.
Bennett – who could still coach England in 2020 even when he takes up the South Sydney role –said: “The Kiwis have always had issues with administration.
“They’ve made some poor decisions over the last couple of years.
“But they’ve always had wonderful talent. I was a part of the 2008 World Cup they won and relalised then how much they had. I’d coached them, too, at club level so knew what they had to offer.
“This team we’re playing on the weekend have a huge amount of talent. Maguire will do a good job with them. He’s an experienced coach and he’s had some success.
“In terms of talent they’re equal to Australia, Tonga, ourselves and are very formidable. I think it will be a wonderful series.”
Jake Connor interview: Page 6.