England coach Steve McNamara has played down his team’s tag of favourites going into the Test series with New Zealand.
Just two points have separated the teams in each of their last two meetings, with the Kiwis winning 20-18 in the 2013 World Cup semi-final at Wembley and 16-14 in last year’s Four Nations Series in Dunedin, and the bookmakers fancy England to get their revenge in the first Test at Hull’s KC Stadium on Sunday.
“I didn’t know that and I’m not interested in that,” McNamara said after the team’s final practice session on the KC Stadium pitch.
“We’ve got a really tough game in front of us. We’ve got to work hard and we’ll have to be good for a long period of time.
“I’m sure New Zealand aren’t too fussed about who’s favourites as well. We know the task in front of us is a big one but we’re ready for it.”
New Zealand are without established half-back pair Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson, as well as Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Thomas Leuluai, Manu Vatuvei, Jason Taumalolo and Simon Mannering, robbing them of 158 caps’ worth of experience, but McNamara is expecting the tourists to justify their new world number one ranking.
“There’s players not available for both teams,” he said. “They’re a world-class team with an abundance of talent and it’s going to be one helluva Test match.
“The last couple of times we’ve played each other we’ve scored three tries apiece and it’s probably been a goal kick that’s separated us.
“There are two very good teams playing against each other.”
The series with the Kiwis was arranged after Australia pulled the plug on plans for a revived Lions tour in order to give their players a full off-season, and McNamara is delighted to get the chance to coach in a first Test series since 2007, when Tony Smith’s Great Britain beat Gary Kemble’s Kiwis 3-0.
“We were all disappointed when Australia decided not to participate this year but, once we got over that initial disappointment, we realised what an exciting series we could have,” McNamara added.
“I think the excitement over this Test series is probably as big, if not greater, than the previous Four Nations.
“It’s a really different experience. Back in the day, they used to have the tours but those days have gone and I think there’s only James Roby and Sean O’Loughlin, and possibly James Graham, who have been involved in a three-match Test series before.
“It is a really interesting challenge and one where recovery between games is going to be vital. It’s different to what we’ve used to with the Four Nations. It’s nice to have a little change from that.”
McNamara is set to stick with the team that beat France 84-4 in Leigh a week ago, with Zak Hardaker continuing in the full-back role following the withdrawal of Sam Tomkins with a recurrence of his knee injury.
McNamara declined to say if Tomkins would have been recalled but admits Hardaker, the newly-crowned Super League Man of Steel, now has an opportunity to cement the number one jersey.
“It’s irrelevant now because obviously Sam’s injured,” McNamara said. “We’d love to have had him available for selection but that’s not the case.
“Zak is a great player. He’s had to be patient over the last couple of years because of the form of Sam in our team. But he’s really come to the fore this year and I’m looking forward to seeing him play.
“Sam not being there takes the obvious pressure of the competition for places away from him but the reality is he’s still got to go out there and play really well, which I’m sure he will.”