England-New Zealand Denver Test gets Bennett backing
Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett has guaranteed to release his players for the mid-season Test in Denver between England and New Zealand – regardless of whether he remains in charge of the England team.
NRL.com understands an announcement of the proposed Test match on US soil in the standalone representative weekend could come as early as next week, with the Rugby Football League – the English game's governing body – also expected to lock in their national coach over the fortnight.
Bennett, whose first two-year contract as England coach expired after guiding them to last year's World Cup final, confirmed he has been in discussions the RFL but is yet to reach a decision on his international coaching future.
Even if the 68-year-old gives up the England clipboard, he offered his "absolute" support for the mooted Denver Test, vowing to release potential Kiwi players in his Brisbane Broncos squad.
With NRL clubs concerned about the amount of travel required for a fixture on the same weekend as the June 24 standalone State of Origin match, it is understood officials have focused on convincing clubs with large contingents of Kiwi players.
Bennett was adamant he would not hold back the likes of Jordan Kahu, Alex Glenn and Kodi Nikorima from Kiwi duties.
While Bennett has previously drawn criticism for refusing to release Anthony Milford for Samoa's mid-season Tests, he says the international game must be given its due with the 2025 World Cup to be held in the US, starting in Denver.
It is understood the promoters Moore Sports, who are behind the 2025 World Cup bid, plan to host annual Tests in the United States ahead of the tournament.
"It's not that we haven't done these games before, the problem is we don't do it on a consistent basis," Bennett told NRL.com.
"And if we're trying to build the game, which we obviously are with the World Cup that is going to be in the States in 2025, if we don't start doing things like this no one is going to know what rugby league is over there in 2025.
"If this game wasn't to go ahead it would be hypocritical. And it would be a case of bias against the English given the other countries can now get players released.
"Clubs have to release players for State of Origin, we have to release them to play for Tonga, Samoa and whatever else.
"So what's the difference with Australia, England and New Zealand?
"Those guys have been playing the Australia-New Zealand Test in the middle of the season anyway for the past decade, what's the difference?"
Under Bennett's guidance England punched above their weight at last year's World Cup, going down to the Kangaroos in a tense 6-0 loss in the tournament final.
Following a review conducted by rugby director and former England international Kevin Sinfield, the RLF has indicated that whoever takes on the coaching job is expected to hold the post until the 2021 World Cup.
Bennett would be 71 by then, and is yet to decide "whether I want the job again".
Regardless, he stressed that mid-year marquee clashes were crucial to the ongoing improvement of both the England side and a truly competitive international game.
"The mid-year Test is really vital to the English," Bennett said.
"Australia get three state of Origin games every year, which is a huge advantage to them and England just can't compete if they expect to just play whatever Tests they can play in the off-season and be as competitive.
"They need these big games."
England captain Sean O'Loughlin said taking a Test to Denver would ensure the international game capitalised on the success of the World Cup.
"While we didn't win, that generated a lot of interest back home so we need to back that up with some confirmed international fixtures," O'Loughin told NRL.com ahead of Saturday's historic Super League fixture at WIN Stadium.
"It's like Wigan and Hull coming over here to push the Super League brand, to take a game to the US would be a big step for the international game and I think it would be fantastic."
Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan said: "New Zealand v England has got to be a good thing in Denver. We have got to get behind it. America is a great audience, we have got to capitalise on that."