THIS England Knights tour has felt like a long time coming.
It’s been almost 12 months in planning – and 12 months of my life – that’s gone into it with a lot of people from the Rugby Football League involved and it’s been a case of ‘let’s get there now’.
This whole concept, the whole vision of what we are doing with the younger players, I genuinely do think is massive – plus the pathway it creates.Paul Anderson
It’s exciting. We are in Brisbane for six days training before heading over to Papua New Guinea for a two-game series against the Kumuls.
The Knights were re-introduced this year as part of the newly-formed England Performance Unit (EPU).
That is led by rugby director Kevin Sinfield and aims to develop more world-class England players for all senior squads for the 2021 and 2025 Rugby League World Cups.
These Knights games in PNG will be our first matches since 2013. It’s great to be able to give young players and experienced players this exposure and some experience of what they are going to get when we go on these trips.
It is the same for us as staff. I was lucky enough to spend 10 days out there earlier in the year doing a ‘reccy’ with Dave Rotherham, the team manager, and it is a mad country with regards the fanaticism for the sport of rugby league. It’s strange when you’re in a car driving around and see so many kids with league shirts on (rather than football) and you just think ‘this isn’t right!’
There’s all the other things that you see around as well. It’s a fascinating place.
The analogy I’ve used, and the impression we’ve got, is that if you’re a rugby player out there, they will throw rose petals on the ground for you to walk on.
That’s how they treat you.
I never got to play in PNG. Paul Sculthorpe, our assistant coach, did in 1996, making his Great Britain debut in a Test at Lae which is where we play our first game on Saturday.
Lae makes Castleford look like Wembley. Seriously, it does.
I’m a Cas lad and we all know what a state the Cas ground is in even though it is a great place to play. But this is different again. You have to see pictures to believe it.
We’ve had EPU meetings during the year and had a couple of people come in to try and explain to the lads just what Papua New Guinea is like and how different their cultures are.
We’ve scared the lads to death with it! But Lae is a great place. It’s fanatical about rugby league and the people who run rugby league there are brilliant while Port Moresby – where we play our second game – is a major city.
The facilities there are world-class and as good as anything we have here. They were all built for the World Cup last year. The exposure and different things we’ll see all means if we don’t get anything out of this tour then we will be kidding ourselves.
Beforehand, we had six players training with England last week and four involved in their match against France on Wednesday.
Knights had 18 train that day and they trained very well against a very, very good England Academy side. It’s been good.
If I’m being honest, I was apprehensive before that first session. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the field and actually had my own team as head coach (Anderson left Huddersfield Giants in June, 2016). It was like the first day at school – talking to players, getting them around, getting to know them. It is good to be involved in this – rep’ football – and it is a challenge for me. I’m hoping this makes me a better coach and the role makes me a more rounded coach.
It was great to see Oli Holmes, Jamie Shaul, Liam Sutcliffe and Robbie Mulhern make their England debuts before flying out with us (on Thursday).
This whole concept, the whole vision of what we are doing with the younger players, I genuinely do think is massive – plus the pathway it creates.
We talk about pathways within clubs but I think it is important that we have them at rep’ and international football as well.
There’s some players here, in this England Knights squad, that I have the opinion are pretty good and should have been pushing for honours in Wayne Bennett’s senior squad as well.
It’s funny. We were just talking to the Academy staff – Dave Elliott, James Ford and Jamie Langley – and saying how good the skill level is of these (Knights). But my thinking was six or seven of them played in the Super League Grand Final last week so we should be disappointed if they didn’t have that skill level.
When you put it into that perspective and look at the calibre of player we have got, I think we should have a fair level of expectation about what we have on this tour. I’m not talking results but performances and people sticking their hand up.
Ultimately, I see my job as trying to provide Wayne (Bennett), the England head coach, with as many players that have experienced as many different types of environment, culture and playing opportunity as they possibly can rather than just a run-of-the-mill Super League player who plays home and away.
In Brisbane, Wayne has opened the door to his multi-million dollar training facilities – yes, we’re training at the Broncos!
We’re staying at the same hotel that England used for the World Cup final last year, too. I want the boys to get to know each other and relax first because when we arrive in PNG, we have 10 days where we’re going to be really stuck in each other’s company.
That means one, we’ve got to get to know each other, two, we must get to like each other and, three, we’ve got to play football and be in a position where we’re all on the same page. As for the future, Kev (Sinfield) has a four-year plan in place for the Knights to take us through to the 2021 World Cup which will all be announced later. It’s just what we need.