Opinion: England rugby league warm-up matches under the microscope

Mike Cooper goes over for England against France at Leigh Sports Village
Mike Cooper goes over for England against France at Leigh Sports Village
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Ian Laybourn of the Press Association wonders whether Saturday’s game at Leigh was a worthy warm-up ahead of stiffer tests.

Even France coach Richard Agar questioned the wisdom of his patched-up team taking on a full-strength England after their 84-4 mauling in Leigh at the weekend.

England coach Steve McNamara put on a brave face, insisting the exercise was worthwhile as he got the chance to look at his new faces and especially his previously untried half-back pairing of Gareth Widdop and George Williams ahead of the three-match Test series with New Zealand.

But McNamara’s men barely had to break sweat to see off a French team decimated by unavailability and withdrawals and there can be little doubt that the Kiwis enjoyed better preparation with their hard-fought win over Leeds the night before.

So what followed was the customary debate about the best way for England to warm up for the bigger battles and what to do with the tiresome French.

England stopped playing France in mid-season because they were not up to it, as a run of 14 consecutive defeats illustrates, and instead took on the Exiles, a specially-assembled team of overseas players plying their trade in Super League.

That proved to be a useful exercise while it lasted but it quickly went the way of the Anglo-French contest as Super League clubs provided only lukewarm support and fans quickly lost interest as the calibre of overseas player diminished.

The result is that there is now no mid-season representative window to match the State of Origin Series in Australia which McNamara can only watch with envy from his Sydney home.

England still need a meaningful warm-up for the end-of-year clashes with Australia and New Zealand but there is no obvious alternative to France.

Wales have been tried and found wanting while the revived Roses battle between Yorkshire and Lancashire, although well meaning and full of merit, failed to fit the bill for the same reasons the Exiles clashes never lasted the pace.

Now a Possibles v Probables Test trial has been suggested, perhaps on the lines of England versus England Knights, but that smacks even more of gimmickry.

No, despite the apparent overwhelming evidence to the contrary, England’s most appropriate opponents remain the French for all their faults.

Agar’s post-match criticism of Catalans Dragons for what he believes is a lack of support for the national team provoked a strong response from the Super League club, whose offer to enter into talks on ways to improve the French side must now be put to the test.

Because of the huge demands on the Dragons, it made sense to drop a mid-season international with France but there are fewer excuses at the end of the year.

The hierarchy of the Catalans must be persuaded that a successful national team will have spin-offs for their club as well as the game as a whole in France.

In the meantime, the Rugby Football League can make one obvious change and that is to stage the matches in France, which would go a long way towards evening up the contests and providing more tangible assistance to the game across the Channel.

The attendance at Leigh Sports Village of 8,380 on Saturday was actually satisfactory, given the doom-laden predictions, but international crowds have been consistently good in France, especially when England are in town, and the French Federation appear to have more success in obtaining television coverage than the RFL.

Instead of kicking the French while they are down, it is time to lend even more support to England’s closest senior ally.