The 18th man column: ‘If Lockers had been fit, we would have won’

Dejected Gareth Widdop after the final. Picture: NRL Photos
Dejected Gareth Widdop after the final. Picture: NRL Photos

Our 18th man columnists discuss the World Cup, England and Wayne Bennett’s future...

Did the World Cup final suggest England are closing the gap on the Aussies or not?

Robert Kenyon: In that one game there was no gap, or if there was you couldn’t fit a rizla paper between them.

I do think the gap is closing between both nations and the reasons for it is there won’t be many Australians playing in the NRL in a few years time.

The NRL is gaining more British, Kiwi and Polynesian players than ever before.

The success and pride of the Tongan team with spur others on to represent the Island nations decreasing the pool in which Australia can choose from.

Australia lift the World Cup. Picture: NRL Photos

Australia lift the World Cup. Picture: NRL Photos

That was the closest I’ve seen us get to beating Australia in a major tournament since either 2003 ashes, 1994 ashes or 1992 World Cup Final.

Sean Lawless: It certainly looks like England are closing the gap. England competed for 80 minutes but couldn’t find that spark to find a way through the Austrlian defence.

Perhaps the most telling part of the final and the a key aspect showing that England have closed the gap, was the interview with Cameron Smith. He said that it was one of the toughest games he had ever played in; consider the gap to now be closed.

David Bailey: When Cameron Smith tells you that the World Cup final was one of the toughest games he has ever played in then you have to take notice.

The guy will go down as one of the greatest of all time, and the triumvirate of him, Cronk and Slater, for club, state and country, in my opinion will be revered as the best of all time.

England came so close and those on the pitch gave everything they had, but ultimately, this was a golden chance missed. The lack of halfbacks and the fact Bateman had to play centre pretty much cost England. That’s not a slight on Bateman at all by the way.

The Australians are the ultimate champions aren’t they? That ankle tap from Josh Dugan was simply sensational and for me won the game. I still can’t understand how he managed to tap Watkins, the England centre was past him and pulling away.

Luke Gale had a poor World Cup in my opinion and maybe it was Zak Hardaker that made him look so good last season. Three minutes left of a World Cup final, with your team six points down, and Gale put in one of the worst grubber kicks you could ever do on the second tackle. It was just the dumbest play I have ever witnessed.

But the fact that England pushed the Aussies so close and were the better team in the second half shows just how far they have come.

Jon Lyon: I think we have shown we are getting closer in matching the intensity required.

Our forwards are, and have been for a while, a match for Australia. It’s the strength in depth and creativity we still fall behind on.

If we are honest, as much as we had a few chances to score, the Aussies also blew several chances. Whereas they can afford to lose the likes of Thurston and Inglis and still fall back on half a dozen quality halves, centres or full backs, if we miss one or two of our best players we struggle to replace them.

They still manage a level of consistency we just can’t reach, particularly with our kicking game.

Ben Reid: I think it was clear to see how far we have come since the 2014 Four Nations. However, while we have improved, and came closer than ever before, we still didn’t win. I felt like this year was our best chance, and our performance in the Final was brilliant, and good enough to get the job done, with the chances we had.

I thought in defence we looked strong, and really stood up to the ‘Wall of White’ nametag that carries with our boys. The only part of our game that lacked throughout the tournament and more importantly in the Final, was the attack. It really was lacking against the Aussies, and the difference between us not being World Champions.

We’re not a million miles off anymore, and we look a good side. We just need to get rid of those stupid little errors in our game – while making sure Luke Gale never wears a white jersey again, and we’ll be fine. The Aussies are losing some key players this year, and we’ve got great lads coming through. The future is bright for England!

Should Wayne Bennett be retained as England coach?

Robert Kenyon: Absolutely he should stay on, for another four years I’d say.

Usually over the past 20 years if we even made it to a final or ashes decided we would get beaten badly in the final. That was the first time I’ve seen Australia scared whilst playing us in a final and the only difference was Lockers.

If he’d have been fit we would have won, no doubt about it. I see us as a nation getting stronger and having a bigger pool of players to choose from, I see Australia’s getting smaller bizarrely.

Not only do they have more and more English and Polynesian players in the NRL, I also don’t see that many young superstars coming though.

Over the last 20 years we have had our hearts broken by Meninga, Fitler, Johns, Lockyer, Inglis, Thurston, Smith and Slater. I’m just wondering who the next Australian superstars are to take the place of Smith, Cronk and Slater when they retire. At the moment I can’t see any that come close.

Sean Lawless: As much as Wayne Bennett bores me, in the way he conducts himself with the media and the way he sets his teams out to play - yes, I think he should stay on as England coach.

I think its clear to see that England had a plan and a plan that the team executed very well. The team now has an identity and style under Bennett and to lose that would be a shame, however, if Bennett has no desire to coach in the next World Cup, then it is time to find someone else. Denis Betts, being the England assistant coach, may be the natural choice for the RFL.

David Bailey: Wayne Bennett is definitely a Marmite character, he comes across as short and rude to the media, The guy isn’t going to attract any new fans to the sport, is he?

But he is paid to do a job not make friends and despite my reservations and my disagreements over team selection, he’s got us closer to a World Cup than anyone in my lifetime so if he wants to stay on then I think the RFL owe it to him.

I’m not one for giving it to an Englishman just because he is English and can’t think nof anyone I’d have in his place. Maybe Powell to see if he can get England playing with flair. One thing Bennett has instilled is a togetherness in the squad, the players seem to banish club rivalries for once and they seem all in it together which is a refreshing change as in the past it’s come across as cliques within the squad which has affected results.

Jon Lyon: Personally I would rather have an English coach anyway, the last thing we want is to finally beat the Aussies and have them say it’s only because we had an Australian coach.

Darryl Powell probably deserves a chance. That said, the players seem desperate for Wayne to stay on, and given the display in the final, if they know him best maybe the players should have the final say. Wayne could still help the game out more by being a lot more forthcoming in interviews.

Ben Reid: This is an interesting one, as I’m not too sure how I feel about Wayne Bennett in this moment. While I don’t feel like he’s dramatically changed us as a side, we have looked a different outfit at the same time. We went close to the World Cup this year, closer than ever before really, while under his management.

What is interesting to note is that the England players themselves are pleading with Bennett to stay – that says a lot. He has obviously made a great impression on the current squad, and has done a lot to impress the lads. I think when the whole squad are saying the same, it says enough really.

The World Cup is over – have you enjoyed it?

Robert Kenyon: I did enjoy it but it passed most of the general public by.

Having the other games on Premier Sports was a mistake, all the games should have been on terrestrial TV. It was a good competition but it was a shame the Australian public didn’t fully get behind it either.

It would have been great to win the World Cup to get some good publicity into our sport.

Sean Lawless: I have enjoyed the last two World Cups greatly, mainly for the games that you end up watching, not expecting much but boy do you get a good game.

The Irish in this World Cup were great to watch, the emergence of the Pacific nations challenging the tier one countries was fantastic and that has to be built on. I am already looking forward to 2021.

Robert Kenyon: The World Cup created some memorable moments.

The main criticism being the lack of exposure.

I thoroughly enjoyed some of the games and I think rugby league now needs to ensure this grows. We need more competitions internationally.

We need to let PNG, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa grow and play against New Zealand. There’s no greater honour than representing your country in any field and for too long, the club game has taken precedence.

Rugby league is a special sport with special fans who literally pull together like no other sporting fan base in the world.

Whilst rivalries are intense, it very rarely spills over into anything nasty and is one thing that other sports can only be envious of. Let’s make sure the rest of the world get to see it.

Jon Lyon: Overall I would have to say yes. The blow out score lines were disappointing, as were New Zealand but the passion of the PNG and Tongan fans and performances by Fiji, Ireland and Lebanon have been encouraging for the future of the international game.

There were many excellent games, with Tonga and Fiji’s victories over New Zealand a close second best to the nerve wracking semi final and final.

There’s not much doubt Australia have been the best team, conceding only 16 points during the whole tournament but with the outgoing Cronk, Thurston, Smith and Slater over the next couple of years hopefully we can keep improving and take that final step on home soil in 2021.

Now it’s time to dig out those old matches on DVD until the season starts again...

Ben Reid: I think it’s been a fun few weeks to say the least.

There’s been a lot of memorable moments throughout for a lot of teams, and it’s been great to see the progress of our game, and certain nations who have come a long way since the last World Cup in 2013. I think the international game is getting better, albeit rather a rather slow progress.

Tonga, Ireland, Fiji are nations who impressed many. I think a lot of people where salivating at watching Tonga, and they didn’t disappoint. Not only to players on the pitch, but also the crowds of throughout the tournament where tremendous.

In particular, the atmosphere in the England/PNG game, was unbelievably spine-tingling. Overall, I think the whole tournament was a success, even though it ended I rather predictable circumstances. It was a real sad finish from an England perspective, but a real proud one at the same time.

The 2017 World Cup was only missing an England win in the final – other than that, it’s been a good few weeks.