BBC BLOGS - Paul Fletcher
« Previous | Main | Next »

Can England win the Four Nations?

Paul Fletcher | 21:30 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

England's latest attempt to win an international rugby league tournament starts on Friday when they play France in the opening game of the Four Nations.

It comes at the end of a decade that has witnessed near misses for Great Britain in the Ashes and Tri-Nations as well as two disappointing World Cup campaigns for England.

Last year's World Cup was arguably the worst of them all, with Tony Smith's team mustering only a scrappy win over Papua New Guinea and suffering losses against Australia and New Zealand (twice).

It raised the perennial question of whether Super League is robust and competitive enough to produce hardened international players.

Gareth Ellis in action for Wests Tigers Ellis thrived in the white-hot environment of the Australian NRL

"With the disappointments we have had in the past I have questioned whether we are good enough," forward Gareth Ellis told me when I recently caught up with him after an England training session.

"Australians don't regard Super League as highly as it deserves. They watch a poor performance from England and it reflects badly on the competition.

"It would be nice to put that right but to earn their respect we have to beat them."

Ellis should know what he is talking about.

He spent last season playing for Wests Tigers in Australia's National Rugby League.

The 28-year-old is the only player in Tony Smith's England squad who plays in the NRL and the former Wakefield and Leeds forward has shown over the last season that English players can compete and succeed against the best.

His debut campaign in the NRL saw him walk off with Wests' Player of the Year award. It came at the back end of a season that started with coach Tim Sheens, who is also in charge of the touring Australians, suggesting Ellis needed to go back to basics.

Wests did not make the play-offs, missing out by a single point, so Ellis has spent the last few weeks with the England train-on squad. It is an unusual situation for the second rower, who played in the 2007 and 2008 Grand Finals before moving down under, but it has given him the opportunity to get to know some of his new England team-mates.

"I watched a few Super League games when I was in Australia and noticed a few players that I had not seen before," added Ellis.

"I've only been gone for nine months but it is good to see young talent coming through. I've been training with a few of them with England and it is good to see the confidence they have gained over the year."

Ellis is talking about the likes of Kyle Eastmond, Sam Tomkins, Richie Myler and Scott Moore - all of whom have come to the fore this season.

England will have more or less an entirely new set of backs for the forthcoming tournament, which comprises round robin games between England, Australia, France and New Zealand before the final at Elland Road. Only Leeds stand-off Danny McGuire remains from the backline that lost to the Kiwis in last year's World Cup semi-final.

Paul Wellens, Ade Gardner, Keith Senior, Martin Gleeson, Leon Pryce and Rob Burrows have all been left out of the squad. In their stead, the emerging generation have been given the opportunity to prove their worth.

St Helens' Eastmond (20), Wigan's Tomkins (20) and Warrington-bound Myler (19) all play in the crucial half-back positions and will have to show that age is no barrier to success if England are to succeed. Tomkins impressed in the warm-up game against Wales, while Myler starts against France and Eastmond is among the replacements.

Wing duo Tom Briscoe (19) and Ryan Hall (21) and centre pairing of Wasps-bound Lee Smith (23) and Michael Shenton (23) also start against the French.

As Smith explained: "I think it's time to put some fresh faces in. We've got some young people coming through and they deserve a chance."

It is hard to argue against Smith's logic. The previous generation of backs might argue they had often been played out of position but nonetheless they had been given ample opportunities to show their worth. Aside from one-off victories they had failed to consistently translate their form in Super League to the international stage.

Kyle Eastmond in action for St HelensEastmond scored all St Helens' points in the recent Grand Final

It is a slightly different story with the forwards. Players like skipper Jamie Peacock, Ellis and Adrian Morley remain world-class performers. Without question, England have more experience up front than in the backs and Smith's team should more than hold its own in this department.

However, there is youth in the forwards as well. The selection of hooker Moore to start against France is also another bold investment in youth by Smith, while Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (23) and NRL-bound Sam Burgess (20) should have great careers ahead of them.

It would be a crushing disappointment if England lost to Bobby Goulding's France in Doncaster but the subsequent contests against Australia and world champions New Zealand present a very different proposition.

With the exception of Wigan's Thomas Leuluai, every Kangaroo and Kiwi in the tournament plays their club rugby in the NRL. Ellis found the competition down under consistently stronger than he experienced in Super League. Every team had several star players while a side at the bottom had the capacity to beat opposition perched at the top.

He reckons that the key lesson he learnt in his first season with Wests was the importance of playing for the full 80 minutes. It sounds obvious, but then again GB and England have a habit of losing crunch games either as a consequence of a solitary period of sloppy play or during the closing minutes.

But Ellis also discovered during the course of his inaugural NRL season that players down under are fallible and is confident England can beat them.

"I feel more confident coming back into England environment knowing that I have played against their so-called superstars week in, week out," he said.

"You do realise they are human and make same mistakes we do - they miss tackles and drop the ball. It has given me a new perspective with which to look at them when I come up against them."

Even so, England will have to show considerably more cohesion in defence from their World Cup campaign if they are to win the Four Nations. It would be a considerable achievement if they were to do so and a major fillip for the international game.

England's precocious young talent could produce a few surprises, but I think it is asking too much of the inexperienced backline to expect them to triumph against such accomplished performers as Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Ellis' Tigers team-mate Benji Marshall. Australia in particular have an awesome back division and are hot favourites to win the competition.

England are now in a transitional phase and I think many supporters would settle for a series of performances that hints at a team capable of eventually succeeding in a major tournament.


  • Comment number 1.

    ITs about time there was a good rugby league blog.

    Absolutely spot on, and i think your thoughts on here cannot be argued against. Maybe right now, the squad we have is a little inexperienced (except for the forwards) but this time in 2 yeard, what a team we will have!!

  • Comment number 2.

    Yet again another good blog Paul, you are correct with what you are saying and i just hope we do ourselves justice on the BBC live game against Australia, As a drubbing would only harm what little national profile we have at the moment.

  • Comment number 3.

    Realy interesting article, looking forward to the game.

  • Comment number 4.

    After being absolutely trashed last year, I can't really see anything but a lesson being handed out by the Aussies and New Zealand.

    And after the stuttering performance against Wales, even France may fancy their chances.

  • Comment number 5.

    Excellent blog, Paul.

    I think it is a case of 'forget what you know' about England. 'Transition' is the best word to use. Australia have had a conveyor belt of talent coming through for some considerable time and England have not but hopefully that is all about to change as, finally, young en bulk is given it's chance.

    I hope that the young players mentioned in the article are not pressurised to succeed and the supporters and media realise that this is the first building block. There is a long way to go but I look to the future with renewed optimism.

    Come on England!

  • Comment number 6.

    Cant see past an Aussie win - they have the bulk of the worlds best players play in the strongest league with all due respect to Super League. England havent got anyone to match up with Billy Slater, Jared hayne, Jonathan Thurston, Folou etc etc.

  • Comment number 7.

    Andy, Folou is not playing, he pulled out injured. Nonetheless, you are probably right, but as long as England restore pride and give a good account of themselves in our new form, I will be Ok with that.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thank you, that was a really insightful comment about our international game. I agree with most of what you say, however I do wonder if Smith is risking all by leaving out so many experienced backs for such an inexperienced back line. I hope to be proved very wrong!!

  • Comment number 9.

    We just can't compete with the Aussies in the backs especially the key half-back positions. We'll probably get thru against France, maybe catch NZ on an off day but to will all 3 matches?
    For too long, the same old players have been rolled out only to then get rolled over! At least Tony Smith has the right idea in giving some of the form players a chance.

  • Comment number 10.

    Why, if we are looking at future development, is Lee Smith playing? He is going to Union and may never play League again if he is any good!!

  • Comment number 11.

    how are we supposed to compete with the likes of australia and new zealand when all their players are over here in the super league. england is the same for all sports though. all our county cricket teams are full of south africans, ozzies, new zealanders, indians and the like and when we get stuffed by them in the test we wonder why. they know how to play against us. football teams are full of foreigners as well. rugby teams, both league and union are flooded with foreigners and we wonder why we are no good, they are taking places from the english players who are not getting a crack of the whip. lets change this once and for all, limit the number of foreigners to maybe 2/3 a team and lets see how that affects the international scene. you dont find many english players in australia or any southern hemisphere team, so why should there be so many of them over here......

  • Comment number 12.

    " Why, if we are looking at future development, is Lee Smith playing? He is going to Union and may never play League again if he is any good!!"

    Double-edged sword, we have to try to compete as well as bring the youth through.

  • Comment number 13.

    What's the difference between this tournament and the world cup ?

  • Comment number 14.

    Rovers Return - I agree that we have to compete as well but one Centre doesn't make a backline able to compete. If Lee Smith is the best we have, and he wont be there next season, then his position is ovbiously a position that should be given to another talent. Eastmond can play there!

  • Comment number 15.

    Hogygog, the last World Cup featured 10 teams. This is the Four Nations - there's a bit of a clue in the title!

  • Comment number 16.

    Who else competed in the world cup then ? - how can you have 10 teams in a world cup - surely its got to be a multiple of 4 ?

  • Comment number 17.

    Super League is a fantastic competition, and this season has shown that it is getting more competitive, but I'm afraid it doesn't match the same intensity as the NRL. I believe that's part of the problem why we are unable to compete with Australia. Their game revolves around quick plays of the ball, there's hardly any messing around at the play of the ball, quick ball means quick metres. I don't think they are particularly any fitter than us. One other factor is that although we have some exciting players coming through, I don't think we have the match winners like we did in the recent past, the likes of Lydon, Hanley, Offiah, Davies, Robinson put the fear of God into the Aussies. But the main factor why we can't compete may be that the Aussies are born into RL.In Sydney especially, they live and breath it. When a kid gets home from school he gets his Rugby ball out and has a throw around with his mates, over in the UK, it would more likely to be the X Box .

  • Comment number 18.

    I don't see how Lee Smith brings anything to the team though, especially with him moving over to the dark side imminently. He is not experienced at this level either. I would rather see Gleeson in there instead, so we would at least have one experienced back

  • Comment number 19.

    14 Saintjock: "Rovers Return - I agree that we have to compete as well but one Centre doesn't make a backline able to compete. If Lee Smith is the best we have, and he wont be there next season, then his position is ovbiously a position that should be given to another talent. Eastmond can play there!"

    Indeed he can and there can be no arguement against his Eastmond's inclusion at centre on the basis of inexperience because Smith has put Briscoe, a player who has represented his country just once, on the wing - albeit against France.

    Let us get through the France game first, but the team Smith picks when we play Australia next week will be very interesting.

  • Comment number 20.

    The Lee Smith point is very interesting - should Tony Smith play someone who is heading to union? I think Lee Smith's performances this season warrant his inclusion, though it doesn't really add much to England's long-term development.

    Rovers Return - I understand what you are saying about Eastmond's ability to play in the centres but I think Smith makes sense when he talks about his ability to come on and have an impact in a variety of different positions.

    I feel sorry for Tomkins but I think we should wait and see whether he is given a go against the Aussies, which, lets face it, is the big test. The Kangaroos are clear favourites and a look at their sensational back division shows why.

  • Comment number 21.

    In 2005 and 2006 Great Britain had to play four consecutive international matches in the tri nations while the aussies and nz had rests. We lost the 05 final through exchaustion. And the 06 tournament was marred by the sean long debacle, which took all credit away from a fantastic win previously against the Australian's at Aussie Stadium against the full strength side.
    07 was a flawless 3-0 series against a transitional kiwis side.
    But last years world cup was in part the fault of under performing players, but mostly the poor selection choices of tony smith. Taking only four props to to world cup was braindead decision, especially when fa'asavulu got injured and we went in to the biggies with only three players in the team who would run it up the gut off neither pivot. Paul forgot to mention the fact that Mark Calderwood is not in the squad as well, which was another reason for the melt down against the aussies last year. Someone who at international level was bound to be found out by the bomb. As long as Tony steers clear of putting paul sykes anywere in the backline this tournament, and makes sure that if theres not 4 front rowers, then the replacements can gain metres, a place in the final is a must.
    Competing with Australia will be tough as there production line is way better than ours with more kids playing the game in aus, and freaks like inglis, hayne and slater are unique. It's all about getting close to the aussies and beating them here and there in the next five years or so. With 4 or 5 of their present players being touted as the best of all time in there positions. Lets just hope those here or there games are major finals!

  • Comment number 22.

    The final we lost was 04 my mistake, still exaustion of four games in a row, was in all 04, 05 and 06 tournaments. It was a good article, its niece to see anybody talking about rugby league in the press really.

  • Comment number 23.

    "Rovers Return - I understand what you are saying about Eastmond's ability to play in the centres but I think Smith makes sense when he talks about his ability to come on and have an impact in a variety of different positions." Paul Fletcher.

    I concur entirely.

    I was trying to highlight that I believe Lee Smith is better choice at centre than Eastmond and that Eastmon's inexperience at this level should not hinder his chances of making the starting 13 (in any acvailable position) because of that. I backed that up by giving Tom Briscoe as an example.

    I think Eastmond's explosive persona off the bench would put an opposition on the backfoot. This may be a useful tool to utilise against the Aussies and Kiwi's when their forwards need a breather. We will see...

    Paul, are you continuing to cover the 4nations in your blog throughout the tournament? Cheers.

  • Comment number 24.

    RoversReturn - I'm not at Doncaster tonight - although I finish work at 8pm tomorrow and plan to rush down to the Stoop for the second half of Australia-New Zealand.

    I will be at the England games against Australia and New Zealand and blogging on those. Not sure about the final yet - have to see how we shape up!

    You're quite right as well - it was post 14 who seemed to have a problem with Smith starting ahead of Eastmond in the centres. Soz.

  • Comment number 25.

    This is like Man U (Australia), Liverpool (NZ) Aston Villa (England) and Torquay United (France) playing in the same tournament. A total farce!

  • Comment number 26.

    I think even without Rob Burrow and Keith Senior we will still hammer France by at least 70 to 80 odd points if not 60 to 70 or 50 to 60 odd points. In my view the score will be at least 78-12. Most points will be by the Leeds Rhinos players and even against New Zealand and Australia even if we have to face people like Brent Webb of Leeds Rhinos.

  • Comment number 27.

    Do you think Gareth Ellis is going to come back from Aussie & tell his England team mates & you guys in the media, right lads, no chance, lets go home now?

    It's a media beat up. The NRL is so far ahead of Super League, that's why England always lose a series or comp to the Southern Hemisphere teams. It really is that simple. Watch both comps, it's hardly difficult to work out.

    Gareth Ellis has done well this year in the NRL, but he isn't going to make that much difference to the England team. The forwards are ok, it's the halves & backs that are way out of their depth.

  • Comment number 28.

    It was a privilege to watch the Kangaroos and Kiwis battle each other to a draw last night - thrilling, highest quality rugby, which convinced me more than ever that if England are to compete with either of these, we will need to draw from a pool of at least 20 English players from the NRL. Until then third place for England is an expectation, runner up would be a remarkable achievement.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.