Shaun Wane’s appointment as England head coach ticks a lot of boxes - Peter Smith
IT ISN’T essential to have an Englishman coaching the England team, but it does make sense for the national boss to be based in this country.
Though there is a strong and growing contingent of top English talent in the NRL, the majority of the player pool is in Super League.
Shaun Wane, the new England chief, lives here and will be full-time in the post, unlike his predecessor Wayne Bennett who combined the role with club coaching in Australia.
Wane faces a baptism of fire, his two-year contract covering an Ashes series this autumn and then the 2021 World Cup.
Assignments don’t get much tougher, but that is the way of things for an England coach.
As with any new appointment, time will tell, but Wane was one of the obvious choices, alongside Castleford Tigers’ Daryl Powell and Bennett, whose contract expired after last year’s Great Britain tour to the southern hemisphere.
The Rugby Football League (RFL) board probably took public opinion into consideration, which made a change of leadership inevitable.
Bennett has never been particularly popular among English rugby league fans, his relationship with the media was frosty and the Lions’ performances last year suggested the national team – the Great Britain and England sides are more or less the same thing – had gone backwards.
Obvious bones of contention were his apparent preference for NRL-based players, his policy of selecting Australian-born men who qualify through heritage and frequently naming individuals out of position.
Last year’s tour squad included a host of half-backs, but only two wingers and one centre. When a replacement winger was needed, a stand-off was drafted in – despite, for the final Test, a specialist being flown at short notice all the way to Papua New Guinea.
Leeds Rhinos’ Ash Handley spent two days on a plane, only to watch the Lions’ fourth defeat in as many games from the sidelines.
There may have been sound reasons for those selections, but they weren’t clearly explained and it didn’t look good to a public who were desperate to see their team do well.
That said, Bennett deserves more credit than he will get.
Under him England reached the World Cup final in 2017, losing by only a converted try to Australia and defeated New Zealand in a three-Test series the following autumn.
Everything England have done over the past couple of years, including the Lions tour, has been geared towards the forthcoming World Cup, but now Wane will effectively be starting from scratch, with the clock ticking.
It is telling Kevin Sinfield’s resignation from his posts as RFL rugby director and head of the England performance unit was announced 30 minutes after Wane’s new role.
In his resignation statement, released through the RFL, Sinfield heaped praise on Bennett and what was achieved during his time in charge.
Details of the appointment process haven’t been revealed, but the obvious implication is Sinfield, as the governing body’s head of rugby, has recommended one thing and the board have done another.
His decision to quit, therefore, is totally understandable.
It’s a shame, because Sinfield put a huge amount of work in, much of it unnoticed, but effective.
Since the performance unit was set up, the England teams – seniors, Knights, women and wheelchair – have made progress and the set-up is being run on a more professional basis.
Now Wane is in place, it will be fascinating to see how the next couple of years pan out. Wane worked his way up through Wigan’s coaching ranks and was hugely successful as team boss there, winning three Super League titles – and reaching five Grand Finals – as well as the Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge.
His style of rugby wasn’t always appreciated, but he is a proven winner and will be good value in the media. If he bases his selections on form – and chooses players in their specialist positions – that will go a long way towards winning over England’s fans.
It’s a tough job though. On last year’s evidence, England are now behind Australia, New Zealand and Tonga so the ultimate target of a World Cup looks a long way off.