BY Tom Simkins

24 Oct

Time To Make A Nation Proud, Not Just The M62

To put the ferocity of the impact seen in rugby league games into some context, the average amount – 10g’s (G-Force) – is the equivalent to the force of a being hit by a car. Note - exhibit A.

The intensity of training, but more specficially pre-season training is staggering. Kevin Sinfield, the man who will lead the English charge spoke recently about the demands on a league player just to be ready for the season.

The Leeds stand-off speaks of hits in pre-season being so hard that he finds it hard to sit on the toilet due to soreness.

This is not a man of soft touch: winner of the Golden Boot earlier this year (only the fourth Englishman to do so) a Grand Final winner on six occasions, Sinfield epitomises the dedication required to make it to the top of the game.

The intensity in the tackle in league is one thing, yet the skill required makes this, a truly all-rounder sport.

Whereas in union the ball is in play for an average of 35 minutes of the 80, league has an average “ball in play” of 50 minutes.

More specifically on the distance covered in a game, league players clock far greater distances than union: what with the 10 metre rule behind the ‘play the ball’ area, as opposed to union defences required to be just behind the back foot of the scrum or maul.

The next four weeks will offer us some of the greatest athletic specimens on the planet and they’re not solely brutish forwards who will look to hammer their way through defences.

As Sinfield himself aptly put it: ‘It’s all right being able to lift a cow, but if can’t catch one, what’s the point?”

So, in this lightning quick, high skill, ultimate endurance challenge, do we English stand a chance on home turf?

Well if last weekend’s shock defeat to the 13th best side in the world – Italy – is to go by, we don’t have a hope in hell.

Couple that with the drinking fiasco that took place following this torturous defeat in which Gareth Hock was thrown out of the World Cup squad by Steve McNamara for not turning up to training the following morning.

The former Wigan player argued that he was one of several players out drinking after the Italy game; to throw him out of the squad is a severe punishment he felt.

Hock’s removal from the squad could be, perhaps harshly, seen as another case of McNamara sticking by his favourite players.

In some quarters of the league media there is the belief that McNamara has, for too long, stuck with the tried and trusted players – the ones who play on these shores.

The half-back (scrum half, fly half) pairing of Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield just doesn’t look right; it never has. The pair couldn’t be more contrasting in their approach to the game.

Chase, a Kiwi born flair player, who can do the unthinkable at both extremes. Sinfield, is very much the model professional: clinical with his kicking (out of hand and in front of the posts), a true team player.

Yet, Sinfield at stand-off would be the easy option. He would do a solid job, yet unlikely be the person to unlock the Aussie or Kiwi defence.

Fellow stand-off, Gareth Widdop has been playing down in the Australian rugby league (NRL) for a good four years now; he deserves his chance on this stage after having been overlooked by McNamara in recent years.

A position in the centres for Sinfield would release some of the pressure that comes with playing at six, and perhaps more importantly allow Widdop to open up defences.

Most likely, McNamara will continue with the Chase-Sinfield combination, so to accept that issue and look elsewhere within the squad – can England really mount a challenge to the irrepressible force that is Australia?

If you go on the number of Englishmen playing Down Under now, it stands at seven. Look back to the World Cup in 2008, there wasn’t a single Pommy down there.

The benefit of this is unquestionable: far greater level of standard than the Super League, the pace of play is noticeable quicker, the exposure of our players to their – annoyingly – superior players can only be improving ours and perhaps most importantly these guys now know how the likes of Billy Slater and Cameron Smith play.

Sam Burgess is arguably, alongside Sonny Bill Williams (the two men involved in the ferocious video at the top), the most influential forward in the tournament.

Burgess who plays in the NRL is the main man for England in this tournament and will be looking to assert his lairy physicality on the Aussies come Saturday.

Sam Tomkins though is the player that us Poms will be totally dependent upon to finish off any chance we have in Cardiff this weekend. The former Wigan man is a true star and what might be in our favour at this tournament is that the Aussies and Kiwis are only just about to find out how good the nibble and nifty skills Tomkins possesses are – the fullback arrives in the NRL next season.

To look at the other sides – the Aussies and the Kiwis – is quite frightening when you consider the talents they have brought to the tournament.

A quick summary of the New Zealand side and really there is only one name to start with, Sonny Bill Williams, who answered a last minute plea to join the squad.

Sonny Bill has strong company alongside him too – arguably stronger than their victory in 2008 - Kieran Foran at scrum half and Issac Luke at hooker look dangerous.

The Australians will always be favourites for this tournament for the foreseeable future; the sport is number one in the states of New South Wales and Queensland; the squad representing the Kangaroos should be nailed on for the title.

Johnathan Thurston is the Aussies star man at stand-off, he is equipped with everything: tactical kicking class, goal-kicking, superb handling and a love of taking on the line.

If truth be told and comparisons with footballers were to be made (the stand-off position being a playermaker) Thurston is in the class of Mesut Ozil and Sinfield is more like a Danny Murphy type: gets the job done in an unfashionable way.

However, as much as we may be underdogs to that cocky lot from down under, wouldn’t it just be brilliant if we could triumph over them at the last remaining sport they can genuinely claim to be any good at?

There’s something around the half a million mark of registered Australian rugby league players; they should walk this tournament at a canter.

However, never before have we as a nation had such a strong squad as the one heading into tomorrow’s opener.

What’s more, the tournament is so incredibly affordable for us to attend. Most games offer two tickets with the second purchase at half price.

Further forward, tickets for the semi-finals, at Wembley, are on sale at £20. Surely a swell of fervent home support can only do our chances some good?

In truth the action doesn’t really take off until the semi-finals; only three teams can realistically win the tournament (and that is including England at a push).

Yet with the likes of Thurston, Tomkins and Williams the tournament offers three genuine superstars of the sport in any period of the game.

We may take a hammering from the Kangaroos tomorrow, yet expect England to grow into the tournament and who knows what could happen if McNamara picks the right team and the Burgess boys, along with Tomkins, reach the levels they’re capable of.

Tune in, enjoy it and let’s get at those Aussies!

Tom Simkins

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