By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson saw Steve McNamara at Allianz Stadium on July 1, he had a proposal for the visiting England coach.
“Trent here was hoping I could go to as many Souths games and do him a favour by taking out a few Burgess boys,” McNamara told Forty20 in the tunnel shortly after the conversation.
That’s not out to dinner, Steve explains. “Last year unfortunately I came and Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess got injured in the same game. James Graham got injured last Friday, thankfully he’s alright I’ve seen him today.”
Yes, McNamara has a reputation Down Under as something of a jinx. Whenever he shows up at an NRL ground, any Englishman within a 1 mile radius is likely to slip over on the footpath, get hit by lightning or – if he’s a rugby league player – do a knee, foot, shoulder or something.
It happened against in round 15, when stand-off Gareth Widdop suffered an horrendous injury, a dislocated hip, playing for Melbourne Storm in Monday Night Football against Gold Coast.
At least the England coach was on hand to visit Widdop in hospital the next morning. “He was surprisingly good,” McNamara says.
“ From the state he was in the previous night … obviously when they got it (hip) back in he was pretty much up and running again. And he was. He was standing on his feet, he had crutches but he could stand up. He’s a chance, he’s a chance. He’s in a real positive frame of mind, which helps.”
That’s right folks, Gareth Widdop’s World Cup hopes are not dead yet. Playing without a club game under his belt between now and then, however?
“We’d have to look at that. That would be difficult but you never say never. He’s in a really positive frame of mind, he thinks he’s a chance of being back to play some games before the end of the year
The primary reason for the visit to Oz, as you will have read elsewhere, is to spend time with NRL-based players. In future, there may be so many of them that England actually plays internationals in the southern hemisphere.
It also happens to be Origin time.
And it seems that the parallels between England and Queensland will increase as the years pass. Many of the Queensland players live and play in NSW but have no trouble raising the requisite motivation – even hate –when he interstate series comes around.
The Queensland bus driver got McNamara into the Maroons’ final training session before Origin II.
“You look at the Queensland team and the consistency and continuity over a period of time – they really look like a team, don’t they?” McNamara observes.
“Sometimes you see a rep team and all the players do different things by different systems because they just don’t play with each other.
“Queensland just look like they’re so much on the same page.
“There’s a little bit of that in us. We’re sort of the minnows. We haven’t got as many players as Australia, we probably don’t have the same sort of climate to train in (the Maroons can’t play that card) so there’s a lot of things that go against us which I think, Queensland, in their own little way, use.
“We’re the underdogs, in some regards. The players we’ve got, we’ve got fewer to chose from than Australia and New Zealand but we’ll be very tight knit, very close as a group.”
You’ll hear Steve Mac talk about that a lot. The main reason for his trips to Australia are to “take out” his players – but not in a bad way..
“We’ve had four camps back in England this year as a group of players,” he explains. “We’ve had a fair bit of time together, we’ve played a Test match, and at the end of the year when our NRL-based players come into camp, I want them to be fully up to speed. I don’t want them to feel they’ve been isolated across here. My intention is to spend as much time with those players as I can and constantly remind them of England with videos … I want them to feel as close to that group as possible, even though they’re 12,000 miles away. I’m never astonished by the patriotism they show, when I speak to them individually. When they come together as a group, they’re very, very focused on doing well at the end of the year.
“It’s our two-team mentality, something we’ve worked on extremely hard – that you feel that you play for South Sydney or Brisbane Broncos AND England – not that you play for South Sydney and England is something you do every now and then. It’s important that you feel like you’re part of two teams and that’s something we do right through Super League and that is part of our NRL players too. These players actually feel that they are England players.”
The surprising aspect of all this is that everyone in Australia seems happy to help McNamara. Seeing him at NRL grounds, he comes and goes as he pleases and seems to know everyone.
“I think there’s a real sense of people wanting England to do well,” he reckons. “There’s a history there and there ’re a lot of good memories of a lot of good English players who have played in this country and competition. And not only of how they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves and there’s a number of boys now. So there’s a real affection towards English rugby league and, yeah, I see that. The hospitality and the access to everything is incredible. I’m grateful for it.”
What is the most surprising aspect of prowling behind the scenes at an NRL game? “How many people you have in the dressingroom, that’s for one! It’s ridiculous! The press aren’t in there (anymore) but I think everyone else in the stadium is to get a piece of the action.
“The competition is very strong. It’s still not too different to our competition. There is still a gap out here between the best teams and the others. That’s been quite clear to me since I’ve been out here. As much as we talk about in England that being a problem and an issue, it’s similar. There are some teams (here) that are definitely better than the other teams.”
McNamara says England have nothing to learn from the Aussies in terms of sports science and training methods – the national team are at the cutting edge there.
“It’s just the size of the game over here and the publicity it generates and on the back of that, they have a lot of kids playing the game,” he says when pressed for other observations.
“We have between 50,000 and 60,000 participants in the whole of the country. That’s the difference. I couldn’t bear to think how many people are registered as players here. We understand that that’s where we’re at and we have to do the very best with what we’ve got and that’s what we plan to do.”
Before speaking to me, McNamara was seen chatting to Manly’s England-eligible stand-off Daly Cherry Evans. But he says there’ll be no more additions to his squad when it comes to foreign-based stars.
How about another issue: the biff. Will the crackdown on punching be carried over to the World Cup?
“I think it’s very difficult for the authorities. They do have a responsibility for the image of the game and everything else that goes with it. I think there was a quote from Sonny Bill during the week – “it’s parents’ responsibility to raise kids, not the rugby league” and I agree with that. We don’t have to clean everything up. Rugby league isn’t a black and white sport. It’s not a line in the sand where if you cross it, you’re offside. It’s not American Football where the game stops.
“Each incident should be judged on its own merits and not just …. I think there’s varying types of ill-discipline. Some deserve to be punished, some don’t. I think the referees are having that taken out of their hands in some regard and that makes it tough for them.”
Sounds like a ‘no’ then.
Forty-20 may have played a its own little role in England’s preparation when we asked if England would be in South Africa in October at the same time as the NSW Country teams. Steve didn’t know anything about the tour.
“We might get in some opposed sessions against them. Where are they playing? I’ll have to try and get a number off you.”
Always happy to help good people. If I’m there at the same time, maybe Steve can return the favour by taking me out.
I mean, you know, to dinner ….
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE