BENNETT’S BRITISH BELIEF
“Bennett felt England were improving and were starting to believe ... “They’re playing with the best and against the best in Australia.”
When Britain last won a rugby league tournament, Wayne Bennett was on the wing playing for Queensland. Grease opened on Broadway and ABBA had just formed. It was 1972. That’s impossibly long ago.
England enters the 2017 World Cup in good spirits. Bennett’s now their head coach and can pick some NRL stars. Sam Burgess, his brothers Thomas and George, Gareth Widdop, James Graham and Josh Hodgson are all standouts for their respective club sides. They’ll have a nucleus of established Test members, such as Jermaine McGillvary, Sean O’Loughlin and Ryan Hall, plus some new faces. Their fans should be optimistic.
They aren’t, though. British rugby league fans are sick of being optimistic because they’ve had 45 years of failure. England hasn’t beaten Australia for 11 years. It’s 22 years since their last World Cup final appearance. They need an injection of self-belief.
Bennett has a proven track record in administering such a boost. He gave New Zealand confidence during the 2008 World Cup, assisting a young Stephen Kearney. It was a revelation and changed their whole campaign around.
“What he gave me and the group was a sense of belief and confidence,” Kearney says. “In years gone by, we haven’t had that enough. Wayne made me feel confident – and if he was doing that, the players feel the same way; we can compete.”
Upon his the announcement as England coach, Bennett felt England was improving and starting to believe: “That’s why their game is improving. They’re playing with the best and against the best in Australia. They don’t go into these games lacking any confidence, as they may have done in the past.” The Broncos coach could also heed the lessons from England’s 2000 World Cup campaign. John Kear had the task of putting self-belief – as well as pride – back in the England jersey. They’d come away winless at the 1999 Tri-Nations – with Australia and New Zealand helping themselves to record scorelines – and no one wanted to play for England. So he turned it on its head and selected a bunch of young men with no fear.
“It was a time when international rugby league in the northern hemisphere wasn’t in the best of shape,” he said. “People were finding more ways to get out of playing. I think 2000 was a first time really that we tried to start turning that around and getting people enthused about playing for England and Great Britain again, after what had been a pretty low point.
“What we did do is give a lot of young men their debuts. It was a very young and inexperienced team, and I thought they acquitted themselves really well. They saw the fruits of that in later years with Great Britain, when Brian Noble took the team to Australia and won [in 2006].”
Kear’s rookies were going to get hammered by full-strength Kiwi and Kangaroo teams, but it was a long-term outlook. Bennett has already spoken about his plans for 2018 and beyond, suggesting he’s in it for the long haul, too, and that his squad has enough depth and talent to challenge the best.
Kear thinks Britain can become great again. “I fully expect England to get into the final,” he said. “My only fear is it’s Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith’s swansong in the international game.
“Ability-wise, they should be confident, and once you get to the final, you can give Australia a bit of a shake-up. Who knows what’s around the corner?”
Wayne Bennett, the master booster. NRL star JamesGraham.