'Tests' in Exile?
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."
The RFL have tried again - just as Henry V willed his troops to go forth and boldly attack the city of Harfleur, in Shakespeare's eyes - and perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps unfairly, the second International Origin series has been poorly received by the rugby league public in Britain.
From the meagre crowds on both sides of the Pennines (11,000 at Langtree Park, 7,000 at the Galpharm), to the fans' negative reactions to the game as a spectacle and as a means of preparation for the England set-up for the tougher tests against the Australians and the Kiwis, to the whole experimental and generally flat nature of the games themselves; it is clear that the series left a lot to be desired in terms of what it promised to achieve.
Fans were generally left bewildered and somewhat disenchanted with the direction England are going in, despite the constant rhetoric of McNamara and co. claiming that "we are building" and "the levels of intensity we are seeing in the International Origin series is the closest we can come to simulating the intensity of top class international fixtures against Australia and New Zealand" (according to England performance director Jon Roberts).
In harsh reality, what we saw was, essentially, over the two games, England's best team narrowly beat a group of players who have never played together before and then England's experimental team (the Knights to all intents and purposes, give or take a handful of players) get beat comfortably by another group of players who have never played together before. However much of a spin you want to put on it with regards "building" and blooding youth and so forth, this was not a test, nor even a decent replica of a test, and the aim was to do exactly that - and in two years it has failed to do that.
Now that's not to say I think it should be scrapped. There was a lot wrong with what England did over the two games. Sticking with Sinfield and England's favourite Kiwi in the halves in Game I springs to mind, as does persisting with Carl Ablett as a test centre, as does relying on the bulk of your squad coming from a Leeds team that are in their worst league form for as long as the loyal Rhinos fans care to recall. And that was only Game I. The very fact that McNamara saw the second game as an opportunity to give a few players their full debuts essentially highlights a psychological problem in how we see this series; not as a preparation for the genuine tests that await, but more as an opportunity to "throw a couple of senior blokes alongside those young people [and] see a different performance and possibly a different result."
That's doesn't sit right with me - this is an opportunity to bridge gaps, and although the atmosphere left a lot to be desired in terms of the intensity that we are actually trying to match (I daresay the intensity that we saw on Sky 8 hours before when Queensland edged New South Wales by a point), this will only build with the right commercial attention and the right attitude and respect to the fixture, from both the English and Exiles' point of view, and we did not see that unfortunately, and I'd wager that it was effectively this that aggravated fans as much as anything.
It was perhaps unfortunate for the game that it was inevitably going to be compared to what preceded it in the morning when Cooper Cronk's 40-metre screamer of a drop-goal won an absolute war that will go down in State of Origin history arguably one of the greatest games ever to end what was probably the greatest series ever. But even in the name, "International Origin" - it's something of an insult to what the Australian 'best of enemies' produce year-on-year. And that for me is another key difference; whereas they put teammate-ship and even national lineage aside to effectively beat every last ounce of energy and ability out of their opponents for their city, we see our 'Origin' as a non-cap game against our pals who joined our club in the off-season from the NRL.
There are a lot of fundamental wrongs with this concept, despite, yet again, promising so much in principle (as so often is the case in Britain). I chose to look at what's wrong on the field as opposed to off it, but on both scores there are clearly problems. But to write it off so soon, just as to big it up as something it's not too soon (as much of the English set-up are doing, I believe) is a little premature.
To jump in and suggest a return to a Lancashire vs. Yorkshire, War of the Roses concept, were we essentially (if one is to purely look at the empty seats at the Galpharm last night) to look just at the marketing side of things, saw much the same problems as those in the Exiles, is similarly premature for mine, although one could argue that there would be a much greater 'best of enemies' mantra about the game (that would more genuinely suit a title of 'Origin').
Given time, and attention, as I say, this could prove to be fantastic preparation for test match rugby.
But unfortunately, the World Cup is next year, and one game for Stefan Ratchford (for example) at fullback in a flat game will not prepare him for games against the Aussies and the Kiwis, should he make the squad for 2013. Just as games against the Welsh and the Irish at the end of the year shan't.
The "breach", dear friends, is much more than a gap in the wall (as Shakespeare depicted it in Henry V). The breach, for me, is gaping, and has not closed in these past two years of the Exiles concept.
Photo credit: SWpix.com
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