Italy threat will leave McNamara facing the unknown

ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara is “intrigued” by the prospect of facing Italy for the first time this afternoon.

In their sole warm-up fixture ahead of the World Cup opener against Australia a week today, it is their one chance to put into practice everything they have trained for during a two-week camp in South Africa.

There were some eyebrows raised when the Azzurri – still a developing rugby league country with many part-time players – were named in July as England’s opponents.

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But McNamara is confident they will prove suitable opposition at Salford and give his squad the requisite challenge needed to prepare for their Cardiff showdown with the Kangaroos.

“They’ve obviously got NRL players and there’s some Super League players in there too,” he said, with Sydney Roosters’ ex-Australia full-back Anthony Minichiello – the 2005 Golden Boot winner – their most celebrated inclusion.

“We know about 50 per cent of their side but not the other 50 per cent, which makes it more intriguing.

“On the back of our camp and coming back to England, the players are relishing that and it’s exciting to be playing a different country.”

Australia, coached by Tim Sheens, have opted not to take part in a warm-up game since arriving in the country.

Some view that as a dangerous tactic – if not the confident Kangaroos – but McNamara feels each squad has to stick by their own principles.

“It is important for us this game,” he said.

“I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s right for our circumstances at the time and for us it was important we came back from the camp and actually played.

“We’ve planned the tournament on Saturdays, too, so it’s a seven-day turnaround for each game.

“When it comes to what we want from the Italy game, we’ve got certain aspects of our play that are really key for the whole tournament.

“We’ve been very good out in South Africa, with and without the ball, and there’s been lots of opposed sessions against each other.

“Now we need to replicate that in the match.”

Ordinarily, England have faced Wales or France in such tournament precursors and, when asked where Italy are in comparison, he added: “I’m not 100 per cent sure.

“They’ve got the basis of a good team and have outstanding individuals – players (Minichiello) who have won the NRL Grand Final this year.

“I think they’ll develop as the tournament goes on as this is the first time they’ve played together so it will be interesting.

“If you look at the squad, you’d think they were on a par with Wales and France last year.”

Crucially, for McNamara, some of his own NRL players will be playing in England colours for the first time in two years.

It is a rare opportunity for the likes of James Graham, Sam Burgess and Gareth Widdop to link with their international team-mates and South Sydney prop George Burgess will also make his debut off the bench.

“It is important getting combinations bedded in for all of us as we’ve not played since June and our NRL boys weren’t available last year,” he said.

“Every time we get the opportunity to train and play is important. There are players who haven’t been in the set-up all the way through, so it’s important for them.”

One of the benefits of not staging a warm-up game is that it removes the chance of suffering debilitating injuries so close to the competition kick-off.

Months of preparation and planning – or four years in McNamara’s case after he was appointed with the 2013 World Cup as the ultimate aim – can be ruined in a moment if a key player is sidelined.

But he insisted: “Every time you go on the training field or the field of play there’s a chance for someone to get hurt.

“It’s the nature of our sport. But if we thought about that we’d grow old very quickly.

“They’ve trained extremely well but we want to get out there and play. Every time we’ve got we relish it.”

As the squad prepare to battle it out to secure places for the opener against Australia – there will be unlimited interchanges from a bench of seven today – tensions are sure to rise.

But former Bradford Bulls coach McNamara says he is currently thriving on it all.

“There’s no (pressure) so far as we’ve not lost a game in the tournament – we’re unbeaten,” he joked.

“It’s a bit like a pre-season when coaches have aspirations and are looking to do well.

“As the games get closer we all have some nerves and anticipation of what’s coming and that’s natural. But I’m pleased with where we’re at as a team and a group.

“I’m sure there’ll be bumps through the tournament – some tough moments but some good ones – but that’s the nature of the job.”

Italy, meanwhile, face Wales in their opener at the Millennium Stadium directly after England’s game against Australia.

They only flew into England on Wednesday evening so their preparation here has been limited.

But Italy coach Carlo Napolitano, a former Salford player, is relishing the chance to lead out what is a disparate Azzurri side.

“We’ve got a massive range, from a local leaguer from Italy who’s played five games of rugby league in his life to one that’s just captained a side to an NRL premiership,” he said.

“Our motto has always been ‘one family’ and one of our strengths is the way we do it. We’ve done it over many years now. We know how to do it on a quick basis and we’ve been quite successful with it.

“I don’t see it as a major issue for us drawing them altogether. It’s just about making sure everyone buys into the game plan and I think we’ve got that.

“The result is not a major concern for me. It’s a matter of seeing how we actually perform, then we can take the benefits and negatives and start preparing for Wales.

“I’ve got one eye on Wales at the moment but that’s all. We’ve been having a look at some footage and the good thing is that we’ve got Paul Broadbent, who is one of my assistant coaches who is quite familiar with everyone.”