THE showdown the rugby league world has been waiting for is upon us, and Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga could not be happier.
Meninga ignited a Four Nations firestorm with his recent column in The Courier-Mail newspaper, where he laid bare the fractured friendship between himself and England coach Wayne Bennett.
Meninga, as always, did not take a backward step, accusing Bennett of undermining his position and employment with the Australian Rugby League after the Broncos coach tried but failed to get the Kangaroos job for himself.
The pair is now on a collision course in the final preliminary round of the Four Nations, where Bennett’s England team must beat Meninga’s Kangaroos to avoid the indignity of missing the final of a tournament being played in their own backyard.
But while the aftershocks of his explosive opinions continue to reverberate throughout the code on both sides of the world, Meninga says it is simply business as usual for the Kangaroos against England.
Despite his forceful “don’t argue” to Bennett in his newspaper column, Meninga says he is actually pleased the seven-time premiership-winning coach elected to coach England.
“All of our focus will be on what happens on the field, not who is in the coach’s box,” Meninga said.
“I had some opinions around Wayne I felt needed to be put forward to clarify a few issues, just so people could stop guessing what was going on and actually get the full story.
“But none of my frustrations with Wayne have anything to do with him coaching England.
“I know he has been copping some stick from certain areas for coaching another nation against Australia. But I was glad that Wayne Bennett got the England job, because we need them to be a competitive footy side again.
“Wayne will help that, and that is a positive from my point of view because one of my main goals is to see international football returned as the pinnacle of our game.
“Having a coach of Wayne’s stature and reputation will help England achieve that, alongside the fact that so many of their players are now having success in the NRL.
“England will only get better. Wayne’s statements about England needing to believe in themselves were right.
“They have the ability to beat any team. Wayne will help them get the belief that they need.”
Meninga is no stranger to blurring rugby league’s lines of loyalties for the game’s greater good.
For a decade, he plotted the demise of NSW players as Maroons coach, leading Queensland to an unprecedented run of success that netted nine titles during his reign as coach.
Now, as Australian coach, he is leading, mentoring and bonding against some of the same Blues players he coached against at Origin level.
And to their credit, the NSW members of the Australian team have been more than vocal in their support of Meninga, with even outspoken firebrand David Klemmer describing the experience of being coached by Meninga as something special.
For Mal, the opportunity to work with – rather than against – the best players from NSW is one of the real perks of the Australian job.
“I love it to be perfectly honest with you,” Meninga said.
“Not that coaching the Queensland blokes that I have worked with for 10 years like Smithy, Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston is any less special, but to have the chance to work with guys like Aaron Woods, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan and Boyd Cordner has been very fulfilling.
“I am really enjoying the experience of this tour, and that is because the players love it so much.
“I get a real buzz out of working with all of these guys.
“I love the game of rugby league, and it is a real honour for me to coach the Australian Kangaroos.
“We have a set of core values, we know what is important to the team and to the selection process as well.
“There are so many great players out there for the selectors to choose from, it is important that the players buy into what we are trying to create and achieve around the image and reputation of the Kangaroos.”