New-look England to step up in Four Nations
Twelve months ago before flying Down Under for the Four Nations, the coach told me he had no expectations, and had set the players no targets. "Continued improvement is the goal," he said. "If that happens we will enjoy ourselves."
England didn't enjoy themselves, losing both to Australia and New Zealand before scraping a victory over Papua New Guinea. The Kiwis then downed Australia in the final. This time Iestyn Harris' Wales join the party, replacing PNG.
A year on, McNamara has had a bit of a rethink. While maintaining that desire to assemble a squad he thinks can compete at the World Cup in 2013, the former Bradford boss believes the best way to close that clichéd gap with the southern hemisphere super powers is to actually win something.
England Rugby League coach Steve McNamara says his side have "great belief" that they can win the Four Nations trophy. PHOTO:Getty
Shelving some of that desire to blood a squad he believes can challenge for the big one in two years time, McNamara has brought in some new faces to try and win this one.
His selections of the Castleford-converted Maori Rangi Chase, Brisbane-based but Airedale-born Jack Reed, and Aussie Chris Heighington (his dad has a British passport) have been controversial, and hint at a powerful desire to win at all costs.
The move to foreign blood provoked a backlash from fans and journalists, with players I've spoken to split down the middle. Why shouldn't McNamara pick the best players available?
He didn't go seeking out Chase. Rangi rang him, explained his situation and made a passionate plea to be allowed the chance to give something back to the country which has adopted and looked after him after a troubled upbringing.
I put fans' criticisms to McNamara on a recent 5live Breakfast programme, and the animated conversation continued outside the studio.
He is sticking to his guns and believes the squad he has selected can justify his shift in thinking by winning the Four Nations.
While we could argue about passports all day, I do applaud McNamara for picking the players in form.
You'd have been laughed at mid-season by predicting that a third of his squad would comprise Leeds Rhinos, but the champions' astonishing late purple patch has ensured that has happened.
From having no players in the Super League Dream Team to dominating the national side is some turnaround.
Most surprised of all being centre Carl Ablett who had to duck out of his own stag do in Las Vegas. As supportive as ever, his mates still went, including Grand Final man-of-the-match Rob Burrow, denied his own England place through injury.
Apparently Ablett got a postcard, so it wasn't all lost. There is the usual criticism of Leeds skipper Kevin Sinfield, with some irate fans littering my Twitter account with angry tirades at his selection at stand-off.
Personally I prefer Sinfield at 13, but he has excelled at 6 for Leeds this year and you can understand the selection.
This is his best, and probably final chance to prove he can be influential at stand-off on the international stage too, and having the sparkle, pace and vision of Chase alongside him should allow Sinfield to concentrate on his kicking more than his playmaking.
Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney believes England will be far stronger than 12 months ago. In fact the boss of the world and defending Four Nations champions tells me this is the strongest England squad he has seen in a long time.
That is both high praise and a thumbs up to McNamara's selection policy. But it doesn't mean the Antipodean stranglehold on the international game will be broken.
Looking at the squad, England can certainly compete. Making the final as they did two years ago is for me the minimum goal.
Sam Burgess is a big loss in the pack but with warhorses James Graham and Jamie Peacock fronting up once more, there's no real loss of impact.
Traditionally it is in the outside backs that England are undone at the very top level, hence McNamara's desire to ready Reed for action.
There are tries outside him from Ryan Hall, and the Yeaman-Briscoe Hull FC axis looks stronger than previous partnerships on the left.
Off the bench there is impact from veteran enforcer Adrian Morley and another Aussie-based Yorkshiremen in Gaz Widdop.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan is in the form of his life under Brian McDermott at Leeds, while the ever-reliable Jon Wilkin has put off an operation for yet another year in order to wear the England badge again.
I have no doubt England can beat Wales, Australia and New Zealand in one-off matches on home soil.
The problem is they have never been able to back up and do it again the following week, and I fear it will be final at best again.
Wales preparations weren't helped this week by the shock announcement by dual-code great Gareth Thomas that he would never pick up a rugby ball again.
"Alfie" was set to line up at centre for Harris' side in the opener again England, although I understand the 37-year-old told Iestyn of his decision a week before making it public.
Thomas' agent tells me the player had already signed a contract with Wigan for next year before a dramatic u-turn.
The Warriors deny this. Harris' hopes are pinned on a Welsh-based backbone, but it's Lee Briers who again holds the key.
The Warrington magician seems to be getting better with age and he lives for occasions like these.
Like him or loathe him Briers will be as fired up for the England game as any in his illustrious career to date.
Are the Welsh just making up the numbers? Probably. But I expect to see real passion against England whom they have not beaten since 1995. Indeed 1977 was the last Welsh win on English soil.
Australia and New Zealand warmed up for the tournament by smashing each other up in Newcastle, in what was Darren Lockyer's final international in Australia.
The Aussies crushed the Kiwis 42-6, as powerful a pre-tournament marker as you could wish to see. The pace and power on show in the game was awesome, if a little frightening watching on as an England fan.
I expect the Lockyer factor to be huge as one of the sport's all-time greats says goodbye.
The wise money is on Australia taking New Zealand's crown this year, indeed several of my Aussie mates maintain the Kiwis World Cup and Four Nations final wins were just flukes, and it is Australia who are the real world leaders.
That may be Aussie arrogance, or they may have a point, but it needs proving. Coach Tim Sheens is refreshing in using those defeats as a spur.
Ask some coaches if they are fired up by past failures and they will label them irrelevant. Sheens though says Australia "owes" New Zealand and admits it is a massive motivation.
England and Wales have a titanic task to prevent another Antipodean assault.