England chief must take advantage of barren year ahead

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IT is has been the status quo for the last four decades and remains the same heading into the new year – England are still struggling, albeit bravely, to overcome their nemesis Australia.

Such is the insularity of international rugby league that this country can gauge itself in the world ratings simply by assessing their record against the Kangaroos and New Zealand.

Once more in 2011, England showed they have the capability to defeat the latter, especially on home soil; the Kiwis may be current world champions but their record here is abysmal, which bodes well for when England host the next World Cup in 2013.

However, Australia is another matter entirely. If England coach Steve McNamara wants to achieve his ultimate goal of lifting that trophy, he knows he must improve his squad sufficiently to break through more than 40 years of anguish in this meeting.

A benign 2012 fixture list yet to be confirmed but probably containing France, Wales and a South Pacific island such as Fiji is hardly likely to help take steps towards achieving that.

England will, however, face the Exiles twice and taking on Super League’s finest overseas players will offer a sterner examination.

That fixture is still in its infancy, though, and has a long way to go before establishing the intensity of Australia’s State of Origin, something which fashions the mental strength England still badly lack.

McNamara – whose side reached the Four Nations final only to be exposed again by the ruthless ’Roos – must be praised for the boldness of his selections.

Castleford’s Kiwi half-back Rangi Chase was a controversial choice but, while performing sporadically in that tournament, is certainly someone England should persist with heading towards 2013.

Likewise, the introduction of Brisbane Broncos’ Keighley-born Jack Reed looks to have answered the long-running problem of finding England a decent centre.

The England elite training squad is starting to reap benefits according to those involved and the England Knights concept is another introduction which should help potential internationals make the tricky transition.

Certainly, 2012 will be an unusually barren year as there is no World Cup, Four Nations or Test series against either Australia or New Zealand but it remains a crucial 12-month period for this nation’s development.

Principally, McNamara has some big decisions ahead – does he give revered stalwarts Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley, who will both be in their 36th year when the World Cup arrives, one last shot? What is his best half-back combination? Which youngsters can step up in time?

Over to you Steve.