Great Britain wing legend Martin Offiah cast a critical eye over the England Elite Training Squad, which was named in 2009 and found plenty to be excited about, particularly in the backs, an area where we appeared to have little depth in the World Cup.
With a number of talented young back-line stars having made their mark on Super League XIV, expect a number of them to run out for England against France in this year’s mid-season international in Paris as the countdown to this year’s Four Nations gears up.
IT’s no secret that Tony Smith, the England coach, didn’t have much to choose from in terms of halfbacks and three-quarters when he selected his World Cup squad last year, with little depth available to him. There were minimal alternatives to the first-choice backs and when the established players’ form deserted them, as it did most of them, the ensuing performances were all too predictable and painful.
But the announcement of England’s elite training squad in May included four backs who have the potential to go a long way – Ryan Atkins, Tom Briscoe, Michael Shenton and Salford’s halfback Richie Myler. Then there are many more waiting in the wings – Richie Owen, Ryan Hall, Michael Lawrence, Sam Tomkins and Shaun Ainscough to name just a few.
As one of Great Britain’s last genuine matchwinners, Martin Offiah, now making a career for himself as a pundit on Sky Sports, is better qualified than most to discuss England’s recent shortcomings – in the back division at least. Especially when compared to the awesome Australian line-up which includes the mercurial Greg Inglis and Isreal Folau as well as the current Golden Boot holder, Billy Slater – not to mention Johnathan Thurston and a certain Darren Lockyer.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction with this elite training squad but the Australian back line is exceptional and always has been,” Offiah told Rugby League World. “They just keep producing more and more world-class players. I remember we all thought when Wally Lewis retired that we’d win the Ashes but Laurie Daley came along and so did more and more like him!
“In their current backline, they’ve got players who can jump like swans. They’re physically blessed by God with height, speed and power and they’re things that you have to have in order to compete.
“Rugby League is one of those sports that you can maybe win once if you’re not good enough. But you won’t be able to win consistently – and that’s been our problem for a while.
“The elite training squad maybe should have been bigger, more inclusive, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“It certainly makes sense to have this squad but like a lot of people I was a bit confused with the selection because some of the leading players are in it and some aren’t. I think it’s good that some of the best youngsters have been recognised but I think it would have been better just to go with all of the leading players.”
Offiah competed in an era when Great Britain and England were closer than ever to international success. In Ashes series, he played his part in wins over the green and golds in 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994 but each series was lost by two games to one. In 1995 he played on the wing as England beat Australia at Wembley in the opening match of the Centenary World Cup but had a try disallowed in an agonising 16-8 loss at the same venue in the final a month later.
“An elite training squad could have benefited us back then I suppose but that’s progress and evolution for you,” he pointed out. “In ten years they’ll think up something else that we don’t have now. Back then we didn’t have enough quality players to win a series against the Australians but we came very close and we still got some wins over them. I was lucky enough to win Tests, World Club Challenges and the World Sevens.
“People talked us up so much before the recent World Cup that you felt they thought we’d won it before the players even flew out there. And when they got there they just didn’t perform.
“On paper we look OK in the forwards but we didn’t have enough in the backs whereas Australia can afford to lose players like Matt King and they don’t miss them because they have so many superstars waiting in the wings.”
But Offiah is at least excited about the recent emergence of a number of young three-quarters that could make their mark on the international scene as early as in this year’s Four-Nations competition, played at the end of the domestic season.
“You need to be a real athlete to play at the top level these days,” said Offiah. “Look at Folau and Inglis in the Australian team and what they’re capable of doing.
“On that basis, I like players like Ryan Atkins. He’s a player who might have come to fruition earlier in his career if he’d been at St Helens or Leeds but he’s managed to stand out at Wakefield and deserves his chance. He’s got great ball-handling skills, he’s strong and I like his build.
“There are also players who aren’t in this training squad like Huddersfield’s Michael Lawrence, Bradford’s Rikki Sheriffe and Hull KR’s Peter Fox. We were short of three-quarters in the World Cup, in terms of depth, and had to go with Mark Calderwood and Ade Gardner. I’m not taking anything away from those two but a lot of players would score tries outside of Matt Gidley, as Gardner does at Saints, and Calderwood was probably picked on the strength of that defensive performance against Leeds in the play-offs.
“In hindsight Peter Fox should have probably gone and hopefully he’ll get his chance this year. Mark could have really kicked on at Wigan, when he left Leeds, and become one of the best wingers in the modern era but it just didn’t happen for him.”
Offiah scored over 500 tries his career but recognises that there is much more to the art of wing play than crossing the whitewash. Modern wingers, he accepts, are bigger, are expected to run out of dummy half on a number of occasions and are constantly peppered with high balls.
“Jason Robinson was probably the first modern-day winger who had a real all-round game,” said Offiah, Robinson’s wing partner for Wigan and Great Britain. “Kevin Penny blazed onto the scene at Warrington a couple of years as a real throwback but it hasn’t really worked out for him unfortunately and now he’s on loan at Widnes in the Championship.
“Another problem we have on the wings is that clubs often hand wing spots to players who aren’t wingers – youngsters breaking into the first-team who are used to playing in other positions, like Gary Wheeler and Kyle Eastmond. It’s seen as the easiest position to be baptized as a first-teamer, but it’s not an easy position to play well. You don’t see many wingers winning the Man of Steel,” said Offiah, who won the game’s highest individual honour himself in 1988 as a Widnes player.
Away from the three-quarters, Offiah is equally enthusiastic with Richie Myler, the Salford scrum-half who turned 19 towards the end of May. Myler enjoyed a wonderful first half to the season; easily the jewel in Salford’s crown as the Reds returned to Super League.
“There’s no doubt that Richie Myler has what it takes to go a long was in the game,” he said, before pointing out that he is the player’s agent.
“You might accuse me of being biased but everyone can see what he’s got – it’s not like it’s just me talking him up at the moment. He’s like a Sean Long in the making. Surely he’s won the young player of the year award already.
“He scores tries, he supports the play brilliantly, he’s got a very good kicking game, he takes the ball to the line and his distribution in top class. He’s out of this world like Sean Long, and he’s taken to Super League like a duck to water, leaving a veteran like Robbie Paul in the shade.
“Support players are always going to be stars, like Shaun Edwards, because they score tries but not even I thought Richie would go this well.
“If I was Salford I’d pay him a king’s ransom to keep him. They’d be silly to let him go.”
On the subject of the Reds, Offiah claimed to be a supporter of the Rugby Football League’s decision to increase Super League from 12 to 14 teams from the start of this season.
“Salford and Celtic Crusaders have taken their time to bed into Super League but we all expected that to be the case,” said Offiah.
“But Salford have done well in recent weeks and the Crusaders have been competitive. All in all it’s a good thing for the national team because more players are getting a chance to test themselves at a higher level.
“In terms of quality, you could potentially reduce Super League to just ten teams and the quality of each match would be higher but then the England coach would have less players to choose from.
“It’s a tough one but fortunately for me, I’m not paid to make these decisions. I just commentate on them!
“But this year’s Super League has been very exciting and it’s great to see Hull KR in second, Huddersfield in fourth and Harlequins in fifth as we speak.
“It can only be good for the game’s and the national team’s health.”
England’s elite training squad
England’s elite training squad was named in May with 17 players in the initial list – a combination of our leading international players and young players with the most potential.
More players will be added at a later date according to the England coach, Tony Smith.
“The world-class training will benefit the players involved as will the extra monitoring and it will help them become better players,” said Smith.
“There is certainly some prestige in being selected and I hope the players who have missed out are disappointed. The criteria was some elite players from now and some who will be in the future as we look towards the World Cup in 2013.
“We wanted to start off with something we knew we could deliver. Seventeen is as far down as they would accept. Before we add more players we need to get the first lot off and running so I wouldn’t expect the group to be added to until that happens.
“Part of the squad we named last week is to do with WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency], which we signed up to 18 months ago.
“The players have to be available one hour a day for 365 days a year for drug-testing purposes. WADA wanted a bigger number but we were able to negotiate it down to 17 elite players.
“Some are elite players of the present and some are elite players of the future.”
England Elite Performance Squad
Ryan Atkins (Wakefield)
Tom Briscoe (Hull)
Sam Burgess (Bradford)
Rob Burrow (Leeds)
Maurie Fa’asavalu (St Helens)
James Graham (St Helens)
Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook (Harlequins)
Danny McGuire (Leeds)
Adrian Morley (Warrington)
Richard Myler (Salford)
Sean O’Loughlin (Wigan)
Jamie Peacock (Leeds)
James Roby (St Helens)
Michael Shenton (Castleford)
Joe Westerman (Castleford)
Ben Westwood (Warrington)
Jon Wilkin (St Helens)