England's Crabtree anticipates new Antipodean test
England's inaugural International Origin match against the Exiles at Headingley on 10 June should provide the toughest test possible for the home side and their coach Steve McNamara outside of a major competition.
Former New Zealand coach Brian McClennan's Antipodean all-star squad has been specially shaped to comprise the best, most watchable New Zealand and Australian players in Super League.
Supporters have voted for 13 of the squad, with coach McClennan choosing the rest.
Next Friday sees the birth of an annual fixture which I am convinced will be a success, and speaking to the players involved, they are right behind the concept too.
I called one of the leading lights in England's powerful pack - giant prop forward Eorl Crabtree - to gauge his sense of anticipation around the fixture.
The 6ft 7in Crabtree has been flying for Huddersfield this season, and is rightly recognised as one of four in-form Giants who have been key to their club's terrific start to the season.
'Big Eorl' is a real character, an unmistakeably gigantic frame with trademark ridiculous ponytail. The nephew of wrestling great Big Daddy (that was all he got asked about in the early part of his career), he is not a man with whom you would mess. When I rang him this week he was smashing balls off a driving range in Huddersfield with specially lengthened clubs.
"I'm like Tiger Woods, I'm getting gradually worse at this game," he told me, before we talk rugby league.
"Pulling on the England jersey is when you realise you're at the top of your game and fulfilling your potential . That fills you with so much pride," he said.
"It's great getting to finals and trying to win things with your club but the ultimate goal for every player should be representing his country."
I spoke to one member of the England squad recently, who told me he was not too fussed about playing for his country, he could take it or leave it. Crabtree completely disagrees.
"This is something I've been striving for for a while and I've wanted a bit of recognition for the things I'm doing at Huddersfield, and for the fact that Huddersfield are doing so well," 'Big Erol' reflected.
Crabtree also said that he hopes the Exiles concept is just one of many more innovations from the sport's governing body to try and give the sport more prominence on the international map.
"I think the whole notion of allowing the fans to vote for players is brilliant. We need to do things like this more in rugby league - we need to be a bit different as we are so far behind football we don't really stand a chance. You have to make an extra effort to draw people in by making it more interesting. "
Far from being an unnecessary, contrived extra fixture in a full-on season, I view the competitive nature of this as one that can only help strengthen the international game too. And surely that is what we want?
We can rave about how fierce, how entertaining, how brilliant the Super League product we watch each week is, but it is on the international stage where we need to see progress. Something has to be done to make the international game more competitive, rather than an annual face-off between the Aussies and Kiwis, and I see this as a good start.
"The Exiles will be some team," Crabtree stated. "We could get beat, we could actually get embarrassed if we don't show up. This is just the kind of competition we need to progress and see which players deserve to play for us."
I shall be honest, I miss the old Origin games between Yorkshire and Lancashire that admittedly never really took off and were scrapped in 2003. Crabtree said that remains one of his big regrets. "I'm gutted that I never had the opportunity to play for Yorkshire against Lancashire in the old Origin series," he told me. "I think that is a perfect way to have top England players fighting between themselves for a place in the international team. I'm a proud Yorkshireman and we all love the chance to smash up the Lancashire lads!"
Realistically, I cannot see it happening. Logistically there is arguably not enough room in the fixture list, and the bigger picture is that with the Rugby Football League driving to expand the game into new areas, the game's bosses would be loathe to refocus on an M62 corridor rivalry. And how do you explain to the top players in Cumbria and London that a Roses Origin match effectively serves as an England trial? Crabtree though is convinced it could work.
"I'm sure there's a way, and it would be spectacular. If you want it enough there's a way. The RFL were desperate to make us play an extra game at the Millenium Stadium or Murrayfield and they've managed to fit that in without a problem."
Crabtree's own inclusion in this England squad is testament to the progress he has made as a player. A bit of a freak show when he burst onto the scene with his enormous frame and flowing locks, the 28-year-old is now a real enforcer, with unexpectedly good hands for a big man. As one of four Giants in McNamara's thinking, it also shows that Hudderfield's hard work behind the scenes - as outlined in this blog two years ago - continues to pay off.
A tip of the hat too at this point to Warrington who have six players included, and I am especially pleased for my pal Ryan Atkins who has grabbed his place back after he was dropped from the elite squad.
The headline inclusion for England is Crabtree's Huddersfield team-mate Danny Brough, a Scotland international at the World Cup in 2008. Now his exquisite kicking game has prompted the England call he hoped for when he announced his change of allegiance.
"He's been fantastic - you just give him the ball and he makes the right call," commented Crabtree, who believes you have to play for one of the big teams these days to get recognised by England.
"The problem when you play for a team that doesn't finish high up like Danny has been before he came here, is that you don't get a look in for an international call. That's happened to me before Huddersfield started going places. That's the way it is and always has been. I've been told before I've not made the England squad because I don't have enough experience and that comes off the back of not playing for a club team that's competing at the top level. "
He may well have a point. Super League's top five clubs account for 21 of McNamara's 22-man squad, and each of those named in the final 17 on 10 June should expect the game to be a real bruiser.