Combined States to learn from England clash
The Combined Affiliated States team that takes on the might of the England Test side in a World Cup warm-up this Friday night realise the enormity of the challenge they face, but are hoping to take advantage of the equally huge opportunity it provides.
The CAS side is midway through a week-long camp that takes in a few days of training sessions on the Western Australian south coast at Busselton, a trial game just outside Perth at Rockingham against a couple of local sides and an invitation to participate in an England skills session ahead of the Friday night trial match.
CAS coach Merg Mikaelian told NRL.com the game represents what will likely be the highest calibre of competition many of the CAS players experience.
"They get a chance to play against professionals, your Burgesses [Sam and Tom], James Grahams and Gareth Widdops and these type of players," Mikaelian said.
"In the end they can say, 'look, I've had a crack and played against some of the best in the world'. For them it's really exciting. The energy in our group at the moment is really good.
"They know they're up against it and it's going to be a tough game but for them it could be classed as the pinnacle. They won't really get any higher in terms of representative honours and the teams they play against. The team is really excited about that."
The Combined Affiliated States team is not expected to win against England, and Mikaelian said the group had a conversation at the start of the camp about what they were looking to take away from the experience.
"We sat down and had a bit of a goals-and-expectations chat and what the team and individuals want to get out of it and the core message that came out is that we want to be able to come off the field and say we've competed against the best," he said.
"We're not expecting to come out and get a win, we're going to try our best to compete and hope for a result to come on the back of that."
Mikaelian said he and his fellow coaching staff could also take plenty from the week from the likes of Wayne Bennett and his support staff, particularly in the sessions leading up to the game.
"The bonus is with such a professional and high-standing coach like Wayne Bennett, I'm hoping to learn a bit off him as well," he said.
"We are trying to catch up with them for one of their sessions the day before the game, this Thursday, so I can maybe have a chat to him. For me it's more about coaching against a professional side like England, an international side."
The CAS squad has been invited to go in for England's 90-minute skills session on Thursday, after which Bennett and his coaching staff are also conducting a 60-minute session inside a classroom for the WA coaches in the local league.
The full week's preparation of four or five total sessions has understandably included a heavy focus on defence as the CAS players look to contain England's battery of big middle-men, according to Mikaelian.
"They're a very forward-dominating type of side, particularly with those big fellas, the Burgesses and Grahams and Sean O'Loughlin and these type of guys, we expect them to come through the middle so we've worked very hard on our defence, particularly our ruck defence," Mikaelian said.
The legacy of the trial game will hopefully be a further boost to the sport outside the traditional markets of NSW and Queensland.
"It's a good initiative, the Combined Affiliated States side, regardless of whether it's women's A-teams or the men's, I think it's a good pathway system for amateurs in the non-rugby league states of NT, SA, WA and Victoria," Mikaelian said.
"It is a grassroots game that we're trying to grow further. I think something like this is a fantastic initiative and it really does put the CAS brand out there, that there is a pathway for players in the non-rugby league-playing states."
Earlier this year, former CAS under-18s representative Joel Reddy spoke of the opportunity the England trial will present to players outside Australia's traditional rugby league markets.
"It is probably hard to get recognised as a player from one of the Affiliated States but if they can play a good game against England and they are young enough they are a chance of picking up something," Reddy said.