Written by Callum Walker
Appointed in February of this year as England boss, Shaun Wane has a tremendous task in front of him to restore pride in the England shirt after a dismal four-year tenure under Australian veteran Wayne Bennett. But, it’s something that he certainly has the mettle for.
After a spell in Rugby Union, working as High Performance Coach for Scottish Rugby, Wane returned to the sport where he made his name, first as a player for Wigan – with whom he made 149 appearances – then as an extremely successful head coach. A three-time Super League winner, a one-time Challenge Cup victor as well as a World Club Champion in 2017, Wane won it all as Wigan boss.
Of course, Bennett is no slouch when it comes to lifting silverware. A seven-time Grand Final winning coach Down Under, the 70-year-old is one of the household names in Rugby League. But, that doesn’t mean that whichever side he goes to coach will be successful. That has never been more true than when analysing Bennett’s tenure as England boss.
Yes, the veteran took England to the World Cup Final in 2017, but he still couldn’t mastermind a victory over Australia in that final, despite the Kangaroos being far from impressive.
A dismal Great Britain Lions tour of Australia and Papua New Guinea in late 2019 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and the English governing body parted ways with the septuagenarian just two months into 2020.
That ended Bennett’s four-year reign and, for many England Rugby League fans, it was the right decision. The lack of inventive playing style, the consistent picking on name rather than form and the stubbornness to play stars out of position meant Bennett earned very few fans on British shores despite his success Down Under.
Too many times, the likes of John Bateman were played out of position at centre rather than in the back-row. Even Blake Austin found himself playing on the wing in the Lions’ tour last winter. The lack of dynamic play, coupled with a boring one-up attack frustrated both the players and fans that couldn’t believe what they were watching.
Previously creative stars looked strangled and misunderstood in a system which may well have suited teams in the NRL, but not the international stage. Bennett had a mantra that worked for the majority of the time, but failed to change tactics when things wouldn’t go his way. Wane, on the other hand, encouraged a freedom of expression whilst maintaining a rigid structure at Wigan – something which proved to be incredibly successful.
Like the Rugby Football League (RFL) Board, fans wanted a full-time, UK-based head coach. And, that is exactly what was provided with the appointment of Wane. A tough, sullen enforcer at his time at the Warriors, Wane appeared rejuvenated at his first England press conference, adorning glasses and a smile like a kid at Christmas.
He truly appeared happy to be given the chance to lead his nation as opposed to Bennett whose exterior never seems to change regardless of result.
That initial optimism was extended as Wane named his first 31-man squad for what should have been a mid-season training camp. Paul McShane, Niall Evalds and Harry Newman were included for the first time following their superb start to the 2020 Super League season whilst Jackson Hastings, Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop were just some of the big-name players left out.
Wane seemed keen to give a chance to those in form, rather than those whose name meant something. In sport and in life generally, those at the top of their game should be rewarded. If Wane continues in this ilk then he will earn a lot more praise and attract more fans than the uninspiring Bennett.