Inside Sport - - IN HINDSIGHT -

“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.

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