Imports test could be best way forward for ambitious England

ANYONE seeking answers as to how England's international fortunes can improve would be advised to take a look at events unfolding in Sydney this morning.

It is no secret. The fabled three-match State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland, pitching Australia's finest players against each other, gets underway again for a high-octane contest many believe holds greater intensity than any Test match.

It is the brutal arena which makes or breaks players, testing not only their skills but resolve, character and mentality.

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Ultimately, it helps moulds them for the Australia jersey; if they can survive the pressure of Origin, they can thrive at the highest level.

It begs the question why the English game has no similar alternative to offer its potential stars a crucial stepping stone, an imposing fixture which could help sculpt them into superior performers.

Incoming England coach Steve McNamara admits it is something he wants to explore as he searches for the missing ingredient as his players step up to face Australia and New Zealand.

The traditional War of the Roses clash between Yorkshire and Lancashire ended in 1989 after nearly a century of action.

They briefly re-started during the Super League era in 2001 but it disappeared again just two seasons later following a lukewarm response from clubs.

There is an argument to fire it up once more although would it necessarily improve England's chances of success? Are there enough quality players spread across the game here to create an intensity similar to Origin, which is now celebrating its 30th year?

New South Wales selectors, preparing to face a Queensland side boasting such stellar performers as Darren Lockyer, Greg Inglis, Jonathan Thurston and Billy Slater, can afford to leave out Paul Gallen who was part of the Australia side that defeated the Kiwis a fortnight ago as well as last year's Four Nations internationals Robbie Farah, Nathan Hindmarsh, Michael Jennings and Josh Morris.

The English game simply does not have that depth of talent. The other possibility though is England tackling a squad made up of the best overseas imports currently playing in Super League.

It is an idea backed by a number of Origin veterans who know the value of representative football.

Hull FC's Craig Fitzgibbon is in his first season at the East Yorkshire club having played 11 games for New South Wales and 19 Australia Tests.

"We've talked about it here and it'd be a really good concept," said the 32-year-old.

"It would definitely be a competitive team, England would get a good game and I'd love to be involved.

"I'd have to get picked first – there's plenty of good Aussies and Kiwis here – but it would be a proud moment for us."

Fitzgibbon will be viewing Origin – which selects players from the state in which they debuted not born – from the comfort of his armchair this morning.

"It will be nice to watch it as a fan," said the ex-Sydney Roosters back-row.

"It is huge. You know every Origin is going to be a battle to the death and it'll go right down to the last minute. It's hectic, intense and as soon as the season starts all the talk is about who will make the Origin series.

"You go into camp the week before and the lead up is amazing. It made me a better player and gets you ready for Tests.

"Queensland have won the last four series now but I was pretty lucky to be part of a Blues side that won three in a row."

Bradford Bulls star Steve Menzies was a team-mate of Fitzgibbon for both New South Wales and Australia.

He also feels the English game could benefit significantly from their version of a mid-season representative encounter.

"Why wouldn't you want to see the best versus the best?" asked the veteran second-row, who featured 20 times for the Blues.

"It definitely improves you. I distinctly remember going into camp and everything is a little quicker and sharper.

"It heightens everything and you can feel how good the game can actually be played.

"Playing with Andrew Johns and seeing the way he trains, or how crisp Danny Buderus is from dummy half, it is all up to another level.

"It's perfect prep for international footy and probably better in terms of intensity."

Menzies offered an insight into the camaraderie such camps create adding: "You're training every day but it's probably 40 per cent game plan and the other 60 is just wanting to play with your mates.

"The atmosphere is brilliant when it arrives. I never forget before a game at Lang Park up in Brisbane and we'd drive past the Caxton pub. All these Queenslanders would be there throwing tomatoes and beer cans hitting our windows. We could get in another way but the management purposely did it to rev the boys up.

"Then running out to hear the boos or the cheers is the best atmosphere you can play in.

"If you could have something over here like that – either England v an Imports side or Yorkshire v Lancashire – then rugby can only be the winner."