England rake over familiar failings after Rugby League World Cup exit

If a picture truly does paint a thousand words, then the sight of Shaun Wane fighting back tears as he tried to analyse where it had gone wrong for England at the World Cup was the latest chapter in a book no English rugby league supporter will be keen to read any time soon.

The circumstances were heartbreakingly familiar, with Stephen Crichton’s extra-time drop goal for Samoa denying the hosts a place in the final. But this one is tougher to take than England’s other near-misses of the past, not least because the four weeks that preceded Saturday’s semi-final defeat had offered so much promise and optimism.

Four commanding victories, including an opener against the Samoa side who ultimately knocked them out, quickly became an afterthought on Saturday. To miss out on a World Cup final is nothing new for England but performing so well and being placed on the opposite side of the draw to Australia and New Zealand make this a rather more painful post-tournament inquest. Wane’s emotional reaction underlines how much of a missed opportunity this was. His side reserved their worst performance for the game that mattered most.

So what now? Naturally the focus will move towards the next World Cup in France in three years. But as is the norm for international rugby league, what happens between now and then is clouded in uncertainty. England have a grand total of zero games pencilled in for 2023, though the expectation is there will be one against France in April. The Rugby Football League is also hopeful of convincing a southern hemisphere nation, potentially New Zealand, to tour England next autumn.

But those games will be the start of a new cycle towards the next World Cup and there are decisions to be made about both the squad and the head coach. Eight of the 17 who lost to Samoa are 30 or above and while the 30-year-old Tom Burgess, among others, will still be involved in 2025, the future is far less certain for some.

“I’m 34 now so I think that question and that decision will probably be taken out of my hands,” admits the Wigan prop Mike Cooper. “I think we deserved a lot more as everyone has worked so hard, but that’s team sport for you. We weren’t a million miles away.” The captain, Sam Tomkins, will be 36 when France 2025 begins, likewise Elliott Whitehead; Chris Hill will turn 38 during the tournament. Saturday may well have been their final World Cup appearance.

There is a decision to be made by the RFL on the head coach, too. Wane revealed after the victory against Papua New Guinea in the quarter-finals that he was contracted for 2023, but you would hope that, for the sake of continuity and efficient preparation for the next World Cup, a decision is made soon on whether to extend his contract to 2025 or instead prepare the succession process for a new head coach to lead England into that tournament. Wane, you suspect, would want to carry on, and he remains a popular figure among the group.

This is not a case of wholesale revolution for the Test side. While Tomkins, Whitehead and others may have moved on by the next World Cup, Wane or whoever succeeds him has a hugely talented group of young players at his disposal. Take the NRL duo Victor Radley and Herbie Farnworth, who will be firm fixtures for the national side for potentially the next decade.

“Test matches are where I want to be,” Farnworth said on Saturday. “I want to play as much as I can for England in these next few years. It’s an absolute honour to play for this great country, as I’ve said before. It always means so much but the other side of the coin is it hurts so much when you don’t get there.” Radley, who starred for England after opting to represent the country of his father’s birth as opposed to Australia, will also be central to any rebuild.

Jack Welsby, George Williams and Dom Young also have a long future ahead of them still. But when the dust settles on this tournament, they and the rest of the sport will be waiting to see what, if any, plans are locked in by the international authorities between now and 2025. This group of players needs to play games: not just to shrug off the disappointment of this event, but to continue their development.

All is not lost with English World Cup hopes this year. Craig Richards’ women’s side will aim to reach next Saturday’s final courtesy of victory against New Zealand in York on Monday evening. For the men, though, this defeat will take some time to get over. When the pain does fade, English rugby league has the foundations to go again.

The powers that be need to ensure that this group of young stars, and the veterans who decide to carry on, have the opportunity to play as regularly as possible between now and the next World Cup. Otherwise, the sport risks being in the same position all over again.