With the Rugby League World Cup looming on the horizon, preparation for the England side gets underway in earnest on Friday when they take on the Exiles at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington.
The Exiles game, and the International Origin concept, as it is known is still in its infancy, having commenced in 2011. The Exiles bring together the best Australian and New Zealand talent currently playing for Super League clubs, and for one night only get to give their club mates a battle in a competitive match.
The concept though, along with many innovative ideas which the rugby league have implemented, has not captured the imagination as it perhaps should have done.
There is a desperate need for the England rugby league side to have competitive and meaningful competition leading up to the World Cup, where they will meet the might of the Australian and New Zealand sides. At this moment and regrettably, international Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere can not sustain this.
Wales have at present a number of exciting players coming through, but the demise of the Crusaders side has set this development back. There are now two lower division sides which will be looking to force their way back through the divisions and return to Super League, but it will be a slow process. Wales against England will be a mismatch which could do more harm than good to the development of the Welsh side
France, despite the success of the Catalan Dragons are still not viewed as strong enough competition either. A mid season international for France uses the majority of Catalan players qualified for the French national side, which takes a considerable toll on the club. The national team suffers though withdrawals and the club runs the risk of a large proportion of their players coming back fatigued, or worse injured.
The Exiles concept, while not ideal in many people’s eyes is a solution which for the moment works. The quality of player in the Exiles team is of NRL standard, and often are the star players from the Super League sides they represent. On paper, this should be a good level of competition for a full international team, and previous results back this up. The Exiles have won two of the previous three games.
England boss Steve McNamara has been building up for this World Cup for three years, with foundations made with the creation of the elite development squad which nurtures future internationals, and the elite training squad which has nurtured a club mentality and removed team cliques which have plagued previous squads.
There is now a unity and a belief within Elite Rugby League in England which has not been there before, and with several of the squad playing in the NRL against the Kangaroo and Kiwi players week in week out, there is a sense that the challenge which they will face in October and November is not as insurmountable it once may have been.
Those NRL players will not be making the trip over for the exiles game. While this is disappointing for McNamara and the spectators at Warrington, it will give the opportunity to some other players to stake a claim for the shirt for the opening game against Australia at the Millennium Stadium.
Friday’s game means a lot for the players of both sides, but more importantly the building block it will provide for this England side and their management to gauge how preparations for the World Cup are progressing.
Defeat, while not the end of the world, will certainly be met with consternation, but much more will be read into the quality of the performance and the way combinations work. All eyes will be on skipper Kevin Sinfield too, after some indifference to his international credentials.
This is an ideal stage to lay a marker down, and these players will know that as the season builds up to the business end, momentum will be with those who have performed well in this game and then kicked on with their club.
This game has importance, and any England player not performing will find themselves in exile too…..from the World Cup squad, and from representing their country in what should be the biggest Rugby League tournament Europe has seen.
image: © digiarnie