SPEAKING AFTER the 36-18 loss to Australia two days ago, coach Wayne Bennett told the media England are “very capable of being a better team than they are right now” and “a lot closer than all of you in this room realise”.
Unfortunately, the media and England fans have been hearing the same sort of thing, from a host of different coaches, for more than 40 years.
Every autumn – when there is a major international series – noises coming out of the camp suggest England (or Great Britain before them) are closing the gap on the Aussies and now Kiwis.
And a month or so later, the inquest begins again on another England failure.
For the third time in four series, Australia will face New Zealand in Sunday’s Ladbrokes Four Nations final.
The same two teams also met in the last three World Cup finals, in 2000, 2008 and 2013 and only the most optimistic England fan would expect something different in a year’s time.
This year’s tournament has come very early in Bennett’s reign as England coach, but there was no evidence of progress and it could be argued the team have gone backwards since their Test series win against the Kiwis in 2015, though that New Zealand side was not as good as the current one.
Already calls are being made for Bennett to be axed, which won’t – and shouldn’t – happen.
He is recognised as probably the greatest rugby league coach of all time and, if given the opportunity, will improve the England team.
England’s problems stretch back long before Bennett’s time and run much deeper than the coach.
In their losses to New Zealand and Australia, England weren’t smart enough, made far too many errors and lacked discipline at crucial times. Bennett can’t be blamed for England twice failing to find touch with penalties against Australia, or for the dropped balls that led directly to several of the Kangaroos’ tries.
Australia – and probably also New Zealand – are better in the pivotal positions, at stand-off, scrum-half and hooker.
Lack of pace and creativity in the halves has been a problem for years.
They also have a deeper talent pool and splitting Great Britain into Four Nations has only spread the quality even thinner.
The bottom line is Australia – who haven’t lost to England/Great Britain since 2006 – have more and better players and they play to their strengths.
England look most effective when they move the ball around, but too often their style of play is based on forward drives. That requires a good kicking game, which is another area in which England are lacking. Why was Sam Burgess kicking on the final tackle five minutes into Sunday’s match?
But the structure of the English game doesn’t help.
England’s stars play too many club matches and not enough internationals.
Australia have the annual State of Origin series and they and the Kiwis are toughened up by the yearly Anzac Test, as well as a better domestic competition.
At the London Stadium Australia wore England down and when they stepped up a gear after the break, the hosts could not go with them.
In Super League it is possible to have an off day and still win, but that isn’t the case in the fiercely competitive NRL, where the Kiwi and Kangaroo players perform week-in and week-out.
It is no coincidence the Kiwi team has improved – to the point of winning World Cups and Four Nations – since New Zealand Warriors joined the NRL.
The Aussies and Kiwis also play fewer club fixtures, so are fresher for the end-of-season autumn Tests.
A pre-season camp and mid-year Test – as called for by Bennett – will be good for England.
But some of that edge will be taken away by the fact their Super League-based players will play a minimum of 31 games next year – before the World Cup – including twice facing two games in four days.
Scrapping the Super-8s and playing 22 Super League games – every opponent home and away – would cure the problem of player overload and hugely boost the England team’s prospects, but clubs aren’t flush with cash and would not stand for a reduction in matches and therefore income.