Preparing to Win

speaks to RFL performance director Jon Roberts about the England team’s journey towards the upcoming World Cup

Image: Dan Holland

Image: Dan Holland

It was November 1972 when a British team last raised the Rugby League World Cup in victory. A Great Britain squad featuring Dewsbury’s star hooker Mike Stephenson (whom some of you will now know as ‘Stevo’ from Sky Sport’s Super League coverage), beat Australia on table position after drawing 10 – 10 in a gritty final at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon. British Rugby League had always assumed itself to be the leading authority in the sport, the champions in every aspect, however the Rugby League World Cup, as well as any other major tournament in the sport has since been a show of antipodean dominance. It seems that since the rude awakening of the 1982 Australian Kangaroo’s ‘Invincibles’ tour, British, and indeed English, international Rugby League football has struggled to make a strong standing on the world stage – England’s most successful campaign to date being runners-up of the 1995 tournament.

Since 1995 the efforts of the national side has hardly been inspiring, yes we have had our moments and dared to be world beaters but this has never come to fruition. To put this into perspective you just have to Google ‘England Rugby League Team’ – most of the photos are of players looking beaten, looking upset; but, hopefully the luck of the England national side will change with the coming event.

Under the new tagline of ‘Honest, United, Relentless’ the England squad, and indeed the whole organisation, has gone through a radical transformation with a phenomenal amount of work being done in the five years since England’s, again disappointing, campaign at the 2008 World Cup.

During his visit and lecture here at the University of York, Jon Roberts, Director of performance and Coaching for the Rugby Football League, spoke of the journey that the England Rugby League had taken in the aftermath of 2008. Centring on the ideas of newly appointed coach, ex-Great Britain and England international, Steve McNamara. The England set up began with a policy of what Jon called “Addition by Subtraction”; the squad suffered a big shake up.

As a result, in preparation for the 2010 Four Nations Tournament, a much younger squad was selected – exemplified by the Captaincy of the match team being awarded to the then 25 year old Prop Forward James Graham (now playing for Canterbury-Bankstown in the NRL). The result of the tournament was again disappointing, with England finishing third having only won one match. However, as Jon explained, the result was expected and planned for, successfully providing a further catalyst for changes in line with McNamara’s plan in the next year.

Given insight from Jon, it is clear that 2011 was the most important year for changes to the England side – not only on a squad level, but also on the operative level of the whole England set-up. Previously the squad had been, in the words of Jon, “nomadic”, therefore a programme change was implemented and Loughborough University was selected, and remains, the central training camp for the national side. Situated out of the heartlands (a massive decision for the sport), the university provided a home in which to centralise the whole of England’s operation.

In addition to a home for the England squad, a new tournament – the ‘International Origin’ or ‘Exiles’ series was created to give the team an intense test against a team of the best foreign talent in the Super League. For me, as a Rugby League fan, the Exiles concept has been both a blessing and a curse. Modelled on the infamous Australian ‘State of Origin’ where New South Welshman and Queenslanders battle it out in a vicious three game series (regarded as the finest Rugby League spectacle in the world) the Exiles replaced futile attempts to create a British equivalent – Lancashire v Yorkshire ‘War of the Roses’ (never took off) and the annual England v France fixture (too one-sided). The blessing of the Exiles series is that England do get a game with a higher intensity than a normal Super League game, but the curse is that in some respects the Exiles create embarrassment – although England holds the current title, the Exiles lead the series count 2-1.

With changes to the operation and logistics of the England side back in 2011, changes to the squad, that today to many Rugby League fans remain contentious, were enacted. Rugby League historian Tony Collins once described the pride of British Rugby League over the fact representative players were never naturalised foreigners, but in 2011, as Jon Roberts described, national scouts sought to find the best talent eligible for England. For the first time “in the style of cricket and Rugby Union,” England looked to be able to qualify players for representative duties. Players selected included Lock Forward Chris Heighington and Centre Jack Reed, two NRL-based players qualifying due to the ‘parent rule’ and birth respectively. Furthermore, and most controversially, the Castleford half-back Rangi Chase was also selected, qualifying through residency, despite having played against England for the New Zealand Maori side the year before. However controversial, the changes worked, with England finishing second in the 2011 Four Nations – a great improvement.

Despite the fact that 2012 did not provide the opportunity to test the England squad against Southern Hemisphere sides, the squad was tested on other levels, for instance high altitude training in South Africa to help the side with stamina in the last quarter of the most intense matches. Also, the side focused on bonding as a group, something that for Jon is one of the greatest achievements of the side, stating that the player’s relationships now as opposed to a couple of years ago were like “chalk and cheese”. Due to team building exercises that have included white water rafting and Royal Marines Commando training, incidents amongst the players, such as the training refusal of the St Helens and Leeds players due to conflict between forwards Jon Wilkin and Ryan Bailey back in 2011, are no longer apparent in the England set up. A positive culture has been created that bonds the athletes off the pitch as well as on.

After hearing of these major changes implemented by the England squad over the past five years, I had the opportunity to ask Jon what the RFL is hoping will happen in the aftermath of the World Cup. With changes such as these at the top level of the English game, I wondered whether an improved international or domestic level of Rugby League Football was more important. Jon stated that it would be both to “grow more participants” in the sport in the future. Moreover, with the World Cup being shown on the BBC, the hope is that it will bring the sport to a wider audience “outside of the traditional areas of Rugby League”. Finally I asked Jon, in my position as a Rugby League traditionalist, whether a focus on the heartlands, as opposed to a greater geographical expansion, would provide a sound future for the sport. Jon acknowledged that focus needs to be on the heartlands of the sport, but most importantly, equal focus needs to be given to geographical expansion: that the “sport needs to grow nationally to then grow commercially and encourage more people to play the sport.” Here’s hoping that the Rugby League World Cup achieves the ideal for Jon and the RFL.

Rugby League Football has changed a significant amount since Clive Sullivan raised the World Cup trophy aloft in November 1972, and the performances of both the British and home nations representative sides have indeed had a hard fight for international standing. Yet however difficult the England national side have found international competition over the past decades, the plans and ideals, highlighted by the lecture of Jon Roberts, enacted over the past few years will certainly help England’s chances at the World Cup from the end of October.

The great Eddie Waring, the voice of Rugby League, once stated that our special code of football is a “test of many things: speed, strength, courage, and faith”; without doubt England will need to pass the test of all of these particular attributes if they wish to achieve victory in the World Cup and inspire a greater expansion of the sport. We can be sure that the RLWC 2013 will bring a fine exhibition of a sport that, for many, is the five or so inches of print in the sport section of a national newspaper they disregard as the lesser brother of rugger. We, of course, cannot be sure of how England will do, we can only hope that they will achieve what we have been waiting so long for. But hopefully England will step up to the game on the international stage, Honest, United, Relentless – and show the world some bloody good Rugby League Football.

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