THIS SEASON should be all about ensuring England are in the best possible state at the end of it to win the World Cup.
Nobody knows for sure because it hasn’t happened since Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister, or at least that’s what it feels like, but were England to be crowned world champions it would be a massive shot in the game for the sport on a national level.
Casual sports fans who do not normally tune into rugby league will watch and support the national side – if they are given an easily accessible opportunity – and it would be hard for a normally sceptical media to ignore an England triumph in Brisbane in seven months’ time.
But on Saturday England will play their only competitive game ahead of the World Cup when they take on Samoa in Sydney and that is not the best-possible preparation.
The England squad need as much time together as they can get, but it is unlikely one game in May will have a huge bearing on a tournament in October, November and December.
Sydney is a very long way to go for a week. Great Britain played a mid-season Test there against Australia in July, 2002 and were embarrassed 64-10.
England’s players will barely have time to get over jetlag before the game and then have to go through the whole process in reverse ahead of Ladbrokes Challenge Cup ties for their club the following weekend.
It’s asking a lot to expect them to be at their best in what will be a physical challenge against a good Samoa side.
Clearly the England squad and management will get a taste of the conditions and the difficulties of the long journey, but a game in this country against northern hemisphere opposition would have made more sense.
Even then, early May isn’t an ideal time for England to be given a run-out. Super League-based players have just come through a particularly gruelling period, with Leeds’ Kallum Watkins and Ryan Hall – for example – having played four games in 14 days.
That does have an impact, as was clear in last weekend’s round of matches when there was an obvious drop in intensity.
However good their re-hab’, the players lining up against Samoa will be feeling sore and weary even before kick-off.
Still, they might as well get used to it.
Should Wigan Warriors or Warrington Wolves win the Challenge Cup and Super League title this year, they will have been involved in 37 competitive games before the World Cup kicks off.
In such an important year, Super League has two bank holiday double-header weekends, one more than normal, which is plainly ridiculous – particularly when half the 12 top-flight clubs had no game on the second weekend of the season.
Bennett will already be without two of his first-choice half-backs, George Williams and Gareth Widdop, due to injury this weekend and his hands were tied in regards to squad selection.
He was allowed a maximum of only three players per club, so could not necessarily choose his first-choice players.
That may explain the decision to include Australian-born duo Chris Heighington and Chris McQueen in this weekend’s 20.
Heighington – whose father is English – played for England six years ago, but is 34 now and couldn’t accurately be described as a stand-out player in the NRL.
McQueen also has an English father. He turned down the opportunity to represent the old country four years ago because he wanted to play State of Origin, so his commitment to the cause might be questioned.
Their selection is hardly a vote of confidence in young, up-and-coming English forwards. But English rugby league is more obsessed by players’ eligibility than any other country, or sport. England could choose to ignore the rules and only select players born here, but that would give rivals Australia and New Zealand an even bigger head start.
English rugby league needs to widen its player base. That’s starting to happen – new squad member Mike McMeeken is from Basingstoke – but in the meantime coaches will seek any advantage they can get.
Whether the Aussie-born duo are good enough is a different question. Certainly Wigan’s Liam Farrell would have been a better option and others such as Stevie Ward, Brett Ferres and Ben Currie can expect to be picked ahead of Heighington or McQueen for the World Cup, if fit.