State of the Nation: Rugby League

A SENSE of deja vu materialises as England's rugby league side is put under the microscope once more.

While 2009 offered genuine hope of improvement given their deserved appearance in the Four Nations final, last year saw little sign of progression and it proved another sobering experience.

Turned over emphatically by Australia and New Zealand when the tournament moved Down Under, laborious England struggled to then overcome a spirited but limited Papua New Guinea side in a fixture which was effectively a dead-rubber.

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The under-performing tourists had started their trip with a lame draw against New Zealand Maori in a game which, had it gone on another five minutes, they could easily have lost and so the new era under Steve McNamara left plenty to desire.

A mid-season thrashing of France in his first game in charge, when their feeble Gallic opponents defended like drains, was as useful for the battles ahead as sending your Christmas list to Santa on New Year's Eve.

Furthermore, the age-old argument that England must strive to attain Australia's elite levels was made to look shaky given it was New Zealand who emerged victorious for the third time in five major tournaments; a little look at the efficient Kiwis would prove just as enlightening.

The common thread there is that all of that side bar Wigan's Thomas Leuluai now hone their skills and, importantly, mentality amid the unforgiving pressure of the NRL, a hardened competition far superior in its standards to Super League.

It is no surprise then that New Zealand have learned to challenge and overcome their neighbours across the Tasman Sea on a more regular basis and, equally so, hardly astonishing that NRL-based Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess are England's two leading players.

Until the English squad can perform on a consistent basis, maintaining concentration, awareness and, most crucially, intensity for the majority of any 80 minutes, they will continue to fall at the hands of their traditional rivals.

In the long term, the more English players heading to the NRL the better but in the meantime – and bearing in mind the 2013 World Cup is McNamara's main goal – they must seek swifter answers.

Ditching the annual farcical fixture with France is a prerequisite for any hope of future success.

There has been plenty of talk about instead facing an Overseas XIII gathered together from the finest imports currently playing in Super League.

That would certainly better prepare McNamara's squad in the fashion State of the Origin does in Australia. A three-match series needs to be introduced this year rather than putting it off until 2012 as time is running out; three years before the World Cup may seem a long period to develop but in international rugby is little more than a handful of fixtures.

In his defence, McNamara was missing a host of regulars Down Under which hampered their pursuit in 2010, captain Jamie Peacock, Adrian Morley, Danny McGuire, Kyle Eastmond and Kevin Sinfield to name a few.

It is well-known that the talent pool here is simply not deep enough to sustain such drastic absenteeism and so, in truthfulness, there should have been no real surprises that they failed in their quest.

Such stellar talent will be back to bolster their bid for the 2011 Four Nations which is staged here and – while increasing the number of quality players at McNamara's disposal remains another long-term aim – the key for the immediate future is to take those he does have to another level.

Raising that intensity is paramount in achieving this and tackling an 'Overseas XIII', potentially comprising grizzled internationals such as Leuluai, Danny Buderus, Matt King, David Fa'alago, Craig Fitzgibbon and Brett Hodgson, is their best chance.

There was undoubted breakthroughs for some individuals last year with Huddersfield's dashing half-back Luke Robinson proving a genuine hit on the world stage and Ben Westwood showing he is international class but England's blatant lack of three-quarter strength was again horribly highlighted as was McNamara's errant decision not to pick a first-choice kicker in his touring party.