Has Bennett Found The Right Spine?


It is often said that a full-back, stand-off, scrum-half, hooker and loose forward are the real spine of a team. Between those players they do it all.  They create, organise, tackle, biff and barge.  To be successful as a coach you have to get that part of your team right.  England boss Wayne Bennett decided upon a little reshuffle of his spine for this fairly routine victory over France in Perth with results that the man himself might well have yawningly referred to as ‘mixed’.


Stefan Ratchford had started at fullback in the win over Lebanon a week previously but he was shunted out to the wing to allow Gareth Widdop to take over at one while Ryan Hall was rested. Warrington’s Kevin Brown was a surprise selection for this competition after a horror year at the Halliwell Jones and an even more surprising inclusion in the starting 13.  The former Widnes, Huddersfield and Wigan man started in the stand-off role vacated by Widdop as Bennett chose to leave George Williams on the bench.


Bennett could point to a very impressive first half display as evidence that his selections had paid off. Widdop opened the scoring early, showing great pace to beat the Lebanese cover in the left channel after a promising combination in the halves from Brown and Luke Gale.  England hit the sheds with a 26-6 lead and a promise of maybe even matching the 52 points that the Australians had ran in past the French in Aurelien Cologni’s side’s last World Cup assignment.  Yet it didn’t turn out that way, with just 10 more points added after the break.  Jermaine McGillvary went over for two more tries to bring his World Cup tally to four in three matches but for the most part of that second 40 minutes England were every bit as disjointed as they had been in the second half against Lebanon.  Ten of the 13 errors they made in the game were committed in the second period as England showed worrying signs that they are not yet ready to turn in a complete 80-minute performance.


Yet at their best in that opening salvo there were encouraging signs.  With Widdop using his pace and passing game at the back and Brown able to unbalance the defence with his ability to run and pass it looked at times like Bennett might just have found an attacking combination to trouble the tournament’s best sides. The quarter final clash with Papua New Guinea this weekend will be another good indicator, not to mention a perfectly losable contest.


Percival Fails To Convince


One man who won’t be taking part in that game against the Kumuls is Saints centre Mark Percival. The 23 year-old was finally given his chance to return to the international side against France after being forced to sit out the matches against Australia and Lebanon despite being one of only two specialist centres in Bennett’s squad.  Even then it was not the palpably out of place John Bateman who made way in the three-quarters but Kallum Watkins.  The Leeds man was presumably rested, a decision which may or may not pay off in the long run but which for now continues to frustrate and baffle.


Percival crossed for his second England try after good work by Widdop but all too often, especially in that second half, Percival was about as involved in the action as a statue that has earned a surprise call-up to the Saints’ team in a similarly redundant right centre role. Percival’s stats make decent reading, with 117 metres on 15 carries at 7.8 metres per carry.  He made 13 tackles, missing just one, numbers that are exactly the same as those next to the name of the supposedly defensively superior Bateman.  The Wigan man made more metres (129 on 15 carries) and both were error free.  Yet it is the passes that neither make when they should which hamper England’s creativity.  Percival is still too fond of a sideways jaunt, while Bateman’s creativity or otherwise hinges entirely on whether or not he can literally run through or over his direct opponent.


Watkins will return for the clash with Papua New Guinea and it is again Percival who will miss out while Bennett perseveres with the revolutionary idea of using Bateman at centre. The folly of this doesn’t totally justify the inclusion of Percival but it does perhaps suggest that Bennett made what could prove a costly error when he decided to call on such meagre resources in the centre position.  Michael Shenton must be watching on from home and scratching his head along with the rest of us.


Does The Format Need A Re-Think?


In terms of their progression in the competition England didn’t really need to bother beating France.  They were already guaranteed a top three finish in Pool A and with it a quarter-final place in a system which critics have suggested makes it harder for some sides to get knocked out than to qualify.  Some sides.  Ireland are not one of those sides.  Mark Aston’s side secured victories over both Italy and Wales in their Pool matches, losing out only to what looks like a powerful Papua New Guinea outfit.  Yet the Irish were placed in one of the three-team Pools where only a top-placed finish was going to be good enough to reach the last eight.


If that seems a little cut-throat it is thrown further into question by the progression of Samoa and Lebanon from the admittedly stronger, four-team Pools.  They managed just one win between them in the Pool stage, with Samoa failing to win any games and advancing thanks only to their 14-14 draw with Scotland on Saturday (November 11).  While it is true that Ireland did not have to face the relative might of New Zealand and Tonga as Samoa did, there isn’t really much evidence to suggest that Samoa are either stronger or more deserving of a quarter-final berth than Ireland.  If logistics allowed might it not have been preferable to schedule playoff matches between those teams finishing second in the three-team Pools C and D, and those finishing third in the four-team Pools A and B?  That would have left us looking forward to two tasty, knockout clashes and would have gone some way to settling the argument about who is most deserving of their place in the latter stages.


Failing that, and it might not work due to the amount of time that the teams need between matches, might it not be prudent to return to a 16-team format?  Four groups of four would see the top two teams from each group progress to the last eight and we would have none of the vagaries that have been thrown up by the system currently in use.  The worry there is that there are not 16 teams strong enough to justify inclusion and that more than a few would just be making up the numbers.  It is fair to say that France, Wales, Scotland and the USA in particular have hardly lit up this tournament.  The addition of two further sides that would be regarded as minnows and cannon fodder might increase the risk of international rugby league’s greatest fear, the one-sided blow-out.  Is that too high a price to pay to ensure that we don’t have a repeat of what in Irish eyes is an injustice?


Was The TV Deal A Mistake?


So I got up reasonably early on Saturday morning.  Not stupidly early.  Not early enough to catch what turned out to be a captivating game between Scotland and Samoa, but in these days of technological miracles that wasn’t a problem, was it?  At the press of a button I assumed I would be able to record the game and watch it at a more sociable hour, but as if it were live having avoided all mention of the result on social media and on the very few news outlets that seem to be aware that there is actually a Rugby League World Cup taking place.


Imagine my surprise then when with five minutes to go, and the two sides locked at 14-14 knowing that a winning score for either would take them through to the last eight (I know, but we’ve covered that), my recording abruptly ended.  In truth I had realised this was going to happen before it did.  Recordings always show the viewer how much time remains on the recording and since there was more time on the game clock than there was on my recording I knew trouble was a-brewing.  So actually it was less surprise when it ended, I had overcome that, and more outrage which took a hold of me when the screen suddenly turned blue and I was informed that my programme had ended.


Now I have heard all the excuses, even one from someone at Freesports itself via Twitter.  Apparently a Sky HD Box (or similar, calm yourself Mr Branson) only allows for an extra 10-minutes of recording after the programme is due to end, so if it should over-run by more than that you are going to be out of luck.  My question is two-fold.  Firstly, who knew this?  And secondly, what broadcaster commits to showing an international sporting event and does not allow for enough time in each broadcast for the game to finish?  It is shoddy, unprofessional and creates the impression that Premier Sports and Freesports are only showing the Rugby League World Cup because they couldn’t get the rights to the Kabaddi.


This followed on from the less than hilarious decision by Premier Sports to show the New Zealand v Tonga match, the defining match of the tournament so far, on a delay rather than live as promised.  The reason given for this was New Zealand’s football World Cup Qualifying play-off with Peru.  Putting aside what I think the average Kiwi might say when asked whether he would rather watch the football or the rugby league, didn’t Premier Sports know that the football play-off was scheduled for the same time as the New Zealand v Tonga game and shouldn’t they have had plans in place? It’s fairly shambolic and serves to highlight the fact that the highest bidding broadcaster for a sporting event and the one which best serves the interests of the sport in question are not necessarily the same thing.


Kumuls Will Be A Tough Test


Back to on field matters, an England’s next mission is a quarter-final tie with Papua New Guinea in Melbourne in what for UK viewers will be the early hours of Sunday morning (November 19).  In days gone by the prospect of playing Papua New Guinea might not have been too much for an England or GB side to worry about.  Sure, rugby league has always been the national sport of Papua New Guinea and their national team has always contained a sprinkling of top Super League and NRL talent.  But historically their side has rarely been equal to the sum of its parts let alone greater.  Their best World Cup result so far was the fourth placed finish they managed in the very modest 5-team event which climaxed in 1988 after a home and away series between all of those sides over a three-year period.


But are they real contenders to get one over England and qualify for the semi-finals?  The form of both so far suggests that this is not the foregone conclusion that it has often been.  The Kumuls have pace and power in abundance, and are coming in off the back of a 64-0 romp over an admittedly weak USA outfit.  Yet to have an win of that type under the belt has to instil confidence in Michael Marum’s side.  Certainly it is something that England have not managed to achieve despite high expectations going into the games with both Lebanon and France.


Much of the PNG side is made up of players from the PNG Hunters club which participates in the Queensland Cup, a second tier competition in Australia.  Yet nine of the squad are currently with NRL clubs.  New Castleford Tigers signing Gary Lo is one of two players based in the Europe, the other being Catalans Dragons’ former Leeds Rhinos hooker or loose forward Paul Aiton.  David Mead of Brisbane Broncos is perhaps the star attraction, while there are also representatives from Canterbury Bulldogs (Rhyse Martin and Rod Griffin), Canberra Raiders (Kato Ottio and Kurt Baptiste), Melbourne Storm (Justin Olam), St George-Illawarra Dragons (Nene McDonald), Sydney Roosters (Lachlan Lam), and Cronulla Sharks (James Segeyaro).


We know all about Homesick James from his brief stint at Leeds, while halfback Lam is the son of former Wigan and PNG star Adrian Lam.  Others to watch out for include Moses Meninga in the pack, owner of one of the finest names in rugby league, Willie Minoga and the brothers Boas in the halves, Ase and Watson.  Many of these names might not be familiar to you yet, but they have been good enough not only to hand the USA what John Cleese would have called a damn good thrashing, but also to dish out similar treatment to Wales and edge out Ireland also.  They have a real opportunity to further their reputations against an England side still searching for its best form.





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