STEVE McNAMARA last night defended his position as England head coach insisting he remains the right man to end the national side’s long wait for glory.
Australia and New Zealand contest the Four Nations final in Wellington tomorrow with England already back home having, yet again, missed out on a first major tournament triumph since Great Britain’s 1972 World Cup success.
Admittedly, they only lost 16-12 to Australia having had a last-minute Ryan Hall ‘try’ chalked off when most observers deemed it perfectly legitimate.
And Gareth Widdop saw two kicks strike a post as the tourists fell 16-14 to New Zealand, another cruel defeat just 12 months after losing against the Kiwis in the last 20 seconds of a World Cup semi-final at Wembley.
Nevertheless, some critics, notably ex-Great Britain captain Garry Schofield, believe McNamara – who took over in 2010 and has another year left on his RFL contract – should be replaced.
He has only managed one victory in nine attempts against Australia and the Kiwis, a win ratio of 11 per cent compared to predecessor Tony Smith (44 per cent) and, before, Brian Noble (42 per cent).
However, in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, the ex-Bradford Bulls head coach claims England are in their strongest position for some time and, though victories against those rivals are fewer, says overall displays are much improved.
“People said last year’s World Cup semi-final was as good as England had played for 20 years, but I really do feel that these Four Nations performances against Australia and New Zealand matched that,” said McNamara, from his home in Sydney.
“We never quite got across the line and it was agonising, just like in the World Cup. But people keep talking about closing the gap and I think it has been to a large extent. We’ve gone from going into games hoping we can win and getting beaten in the last 20 minutes to now taking these games really right down to the wire.
“We’ve certainly proven over the last four times we’ve played – twice against New Zealand and Australia – that those games are now down to such a fine margin, such very small percentages.
“Unfortunately we’ve not been on the right side of those yet, but we’ve got to show patience, gain more experience and those close losses will turn into victories.
“The biggest positive for me from this tournament has actually been the team’s performances.
“To win on southern hemisphere soil is really difficult. But for the team to put in back-to-back, outstanding performances inside six days, especially considering flights between Australia and New Zealand, is a great feat.
“On reflection, I think we were the better team in all of those games having shown great tenacity to beat Samoa in our first when we didn’t play to our best.
“We have to stay strong and positive and not let anything negative come blow us off course.”
England have seen a number of young players rise to prominence in this tournament, such as 21-year-olds Daryl Clark and Dan Sarginson, and, for many, the future appears bright.
New Zealand will arrive here on a three-Test tour at the end of 2015 and Hull-born McNamara added: “Quite clearly we’ve taken huge strides as an international group in terms of performance and the ability to come together and really play as a team.
“Those efforts have taken a fair bit of time. There’s been a lot of progression; young guys coming through had a taste of what’s required at that level with England Knights, saw the standards we need and really pushed on.
“We’ve got to keep persevering and attacking it the way we are. With the age of our squad and its potential it has some big things in front of it.
“I understand people will be frustrated that we didn’t quite get it done this time. But I think they should also be extremely proud of the performance of the team and the style we attacked the tournament.
“Attacking-wise we looked very slick and very fast while defensively to concede just three tries in games against Australia and New Zealand is a feat that’s been difficult to achieve previously.”
England had been accused of going into their shell during the second half against Australia despite really troubling the world champions to build up a 12-4 interval lead.
But McNamara insists that was never the case and said: “Statistically, that was the highest standard game any English team has been involved in at any level for years and when you watch the start of the second half we actually opened up on them.
“Daryl Clark nearly scores, we shift a play to the left, we run a play on the last and we started to play some attractive stuff.
“But games ebb and flow, momentum swings and Australia, for a large period of time, just kept putting us right in the corner in really tough field positions.
“In previous times, the England teams have cracked under that sort of pressure. But we withstood that and found a way to fight our way out of that end. The plan was to play more – we wanted to keep passing the ball around – but for a spell they did a really good job on us. You have to scrap your way out of situations and we did that well enough to keep us in the game and give ourselves the chance to win at the end. Which we very nearly did.”
McNamara’s plan: Page 20.