England ready to begin World Cup countdown
England's World Cup preparations start in earnest tomorrow when they meet Wales in their opening autumn international in Wrexham.
Fresh from putting his squad through their paces on a 10-day training camp in South Africa, head coach Steve McNamara says the triangular tournament will also act as a dry run for next year's assault on the World Cup, which opens in Cardiff 12 months to the day.
McNamara is planning to repeat the trip to Potchefstroom next October ahead of their tournament opener against Australia and believes the forthcoming games against Wales and France will help shape his squad for the bigger tests ahead.
"We feel we will get some immediate benefits from the camp but we've got to play through this competition and assess it all at the end," McNamara said.
"Our job is to get the players in the very best physical and mental shape we can to go on and win the World Cup.
"We've practised that this year and we may need to tweak one or two things once we get all the results back."
With Australia and New Zealand opting out of the Four Nations Series in order to give their players better preparation for World Cup year, Wales and France are providing the opposition for McNamara's men this autumn.
So, instead of being the customary underdogs, England will don the mantle of firm favourites to reach the November 11 final at the City of Salford Stadium.
The Welsh, who lost 20-6 to France in the opening fixture in Lens last Saturday, are looking for their first win over England for 17 years.
They are unlikely to halt an eight-game losing sequence going back to an 18-16 victory over England in the 1995 European Championship in Cardiff but McNamara is looking beyond results.
"We'll judge ourselves by what we want to achieve rather than the opposition," he said.
"We respect Wales a lot. They've got some very good players, some very good young players.
"They've had a very strong team in the past, particularly in the 90s, when you had the likes of (John) Devereux, (Jonathan) Davies and (Paul) Moriarty, and they've now got a crop of young players who are going to grow together as a group."
McNamara has been denied the services of half a dozen regulars, including three Australia-based internationals, and he believes those given an unexpected opportunity this year will have a glorious opportunity to lay down a marker.
"It's alien for us to be going into an international tournament as favourites," McNamara said.
"I think that brings a different pressure and we can judge our players and personnel by how we approach this game.
"All the players have an opportunity in this series to either establish themselves in the team or the opposite of that is to suggest they are not the right type of person for an international tournament.
"I think we've got the right bunch but we need to approach these games in a positive manner. The competition for places is getting really intense.
"We've got 24 players here - 23 now Rangi Chase has gone - another six or seven domestic players sat on the sidelines, an England Knights programme pushing on really strong and three, if not more, Australian-based players as well.
"These players will get the opportunity now and they are fully aware of what's expected of themselves throughout this tournament."