Four Nations: Legends of the game united in England colours

AT England's Birmingham hotel yesterday, there was an inadvertent parade of rugby league greats '“ without a single player in sight.

England's Jermaine McGillvary is congratulated on scoring against New Zealand on Saturday (Picture: Dave Howarth/PA Wire).
England's Jermaine McGillvary is congratulated on scoring against New Zealand on Saturday (Picture: Dave Howarth/PA Wire).

If any squad members in the camp need a quiet word of advice or an ear to listen during this Four Nations tournament, they will certainly not be short of qualified candidates to offer wisdom.

Of course they have the main man himself, Wayne Bennett, their esteemed head coach widely regarded as the greatest coach in the sport’s history.

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However, surrounding the Australian is a raft of British talent including, remarkably, four Man of Steel winners.

St Helens legends Paul Sculthorpe and Paul Wellens emerged in training gear yesterday looking like they could still do a job at international level if the need arose in the coming weeks.

Sculthorpe, the former Great Britain captain who lifted the Man of Steel in 2001 and 2002, is newly-installed as part of England’s backroom team while Wellens, the ex-Lions full-back won the prestigious individual honour in 2008, has carried on his role having worked under predecessor Steve McNamara.

Then there is also Jamie Peacock, the 2003 Man of Steel, legendary prop and now Hull KR head of rugby, who is working as England’s football manager plus assistant coach Denis Betts, who won the award himself in 1995.

That was also the year England last defeated Australia, in a World Cup match at Wembley, Wigan second-row Betts joined by the likes of Jason Robinson, Shaun Edwards and Paul Newlove in a side that was coached by Phil Larder.

One of Bennett’s other assistants – Paul Anderson – may not have ever been named Man of Steel but he did win Coach of the Year with Huddersfield Giants in 2013 having earlier proven himself as a fine international prop with Great Britain and England during his own playing career.

So much knowledge and experience – those five former players have 164 caps between them – is on tap there for the national side as they strive to recover from an invidious position and win this 2016 Four Nations.

It is fitting, though, that it is not only the current England squad that is benefitting from their expertise; a raft of Castleford Tigers academy players are there this week, soaking up a unique experience by working with the national side as they prepare for Saturday’s game against Scotland in nearby Coventry.

With Bennett wanting to create as many game-like situations as possible for his 24-man squad, the teenagers’ involvement is welcomed as it enables him to play out 13 versus 13 scenarios.

And the youngsters get to witness just what it takes to be a full-time international player.

Of course, Birmingham and Coventry’s Ricoh Arena – where England’s second fixture of the competition will be held on Saturday – are not ordinarily associated with rugby league but this is another attempt to find new fans for the sport. Indeed, you had to admire the local radio reporter’s professionalism, creativity and perseverance yesterday as he tried to find four different ways to ask Bennett and the three players on media duty about their thoughts on playing in Coventry.

Equally so, you have to admire Bennett’s honesty when asked how much he is looking forward to “spreading the word of rugby league in the midlands”.

“I just do what I’m told,” he said. “They told us we’re playing here so that’s why I’m here.

“I’m not sure I’m spreading the word or what I’m doing. Just doing my job.”

Thankfully for the reporters, Chris Hill and Leeds Rhinos duo Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall were a little more on script, soundbites at the ready.

Around 20,000 tickets have been sold so far for what will be a double-header in Coventry, holders New Zealand playing world champions Australia at 8pm after England – who lost to the Kiwis 17-16 last Saturday – face Scotland with a 5.30pm kick-off.

It is a decent uptake so far and organisers will hope that will rise further on the day, although swapping the fixture slots around and playing a little earlier could have made it a more appealing prospect for some undecided supporters. That said, broadcasting requirements dictate and both games are being televised live by the BBC so there can be few complaints.

On the subject of Man of Steel, there will be another in the Beeb’s ranks, too, with 1994 victor Jonathan Davies in the commentary box Saturday. But he’s Welsh...