Same Old Story…
Conventional wisdom before this one was that England would be very unlikely to beat the Australians twice during this World Cup, and that if that was going to be the case we would all rather drop this one and then beat them when it really matters in the final on December 2. So an 18-4 reverse should not be a result shatters hope of a long, long awaited World Cup triumph. There were certainly enough in the England performance to show that they could, on another day, seriously trouble Australia or anyone else who happens to find themselves in the way. Yet despite that there was something frustratingly familiar about the way in which Wayne Bennett’s side went about losing their Group A opener to Mal Meninga’s heavily fancied side.
It had looked like a different tale might be told when Jermaine McGilvary sneaked over in the corner in England’s first real attacking set. Yet as the game wore on England found it increasingly harder to get possession in anything but treacherous field position. Starved of good attacking ball they were unable to add to that early McGilvary effort and, despite a more than solid defensive effort which Bennett will probably be rather pleased with, the dam was always going to break. It did as tries from Matt Gillett and Billy Slater put the Aussies into a 10-4 half-time lead. The score stayed the same until five minutes before the end in a tight second half struggle, before a penalty given for who knows what more or less gifted the home side the win. Josh Dugan’s breakaway try a few minutes later was the result of a desperate chip and chase and a bounce missed wildly by Kallum Watkins. It gave the scoreline a rather flattering look for Australia, but you wouldn’t blame them or their fans if they went away from AAMI Park in Melbourne thinking ‘yep, knew that would happen.’
You hate to moan about referees when you have lost. It really is the last refuge of the desperate. And there were many things to admire about the way in which Matt Cecchin ran proceedings in Melbourne. He kept a more than reasonable 10 metres between the sides at the play-the-balls, something you hardly ever see happen in Super League, and allowed far less of the turgid wrestling after each tackle that has become the staple of so many Super League contests. That meant that the game flowed much more and was a better spectacle for it, even if you wouldn’t suggest that it was full of adventure.
But the problem is that Cecchin is Australian. Not that I am suggesting even a small morsel of jiggery-pokery about any of his decisions but wouldn’t having a neutral referee just take that option out of the equation? Wouldn’t it just erase all doubts? It is quite possible that at an English referee would have come up with the same rather mystifying decision against Elliott Whitehead which ultimately sealed the win for the Australians. The distinctly English Ben Thaler in the video booth was hell bent on awarding Australia a penalty for an obstruction when asked to review one close call on a try and was only prevented from doing so by Cecchin. So no bias there.
But doesn’t the lack of neutral referees just seem a little small time? The awful truth is probably that there are not enough quality referees around what is an expanding rugby league world. While the focus has been on developing the playing strengths of less traditional RL nations so that an event like the Rugby League World Cup is viable, there doesn’t seem to have been the same focus on developing officials outside of the RL strongholds. Of course it is easier to find players to play for Lebanon or Italy when you are assisted by rules around family lineage and residency. An Australian with say….French residency refereeing a match between England and Australian would still be seen by many as an Australian. The challenge is to develop officials in lesser RL nations at all levels so that one day we might be able to reasonably expect a neutral referee at all World Cup matches.
Bateman Or Percival?
If you were with me at London’s Olympic Stadium in 2015 when England lined up against New Zealand you will likely have let out an audible groan when you saw the name of John Bateman at centre in Steve McNamara’s side that day. Bateman did nothing wrong in particular but his presence in what is supposed to be a skill position in the backs was always going to stifle England’s creativity and lead to a bit of a bore fest. And so it did as England went down to a turgid 9-2 defeat.
Now, that can’t all be put down to Bateman of course but with McNamara gone it seems England are still flogging the same if not dead, then critically ill horse two years on, and with a coach who can boast pretty much every honour in the game on his CV. Unfathomably, Bennett sees fit to select Bateman in the centres also. Back in 2015 there were arguably a dearth of candidates for the role as England relied heavily on Watkins on the opposite side of the field. Yet with Saints very own Mark Percival in the squad there is a lot of head-scratching going on as to why Bennett prefers Bateman, essentially a narky if highly effective second rower, to the dazzling if unrefined talents of Percival.
The thinking is presumably to shore up England’s defence against international opposition, particularly Australia who will exploit any defensive weakness ruthlessly. However, you cannot go into any game against a side as good as the Australians with one hand tied behind your back in terms of your attacking creativity. The only way to beat them is to be positive against them. They are going to score points anyway and if you are reducing your opportunities to do likewise with your team selection then you are entering a world of pain. Bateman wasn’t particularly at fault but his presence didn’t totally shore up the defence anyway, with both of Australia’s first half tries coming down that left channel where he was defending alongside Ryan Hall. Meanwhile at the other end Bateman struggled, as we knew he would, to create anything for the Leeds winger against Australia’s strong and committed edge defence.
You need something a little bit different against the Australians but it does not seem that Bennett agrees. Bateman has again been named in the centre position for the Lebanon game on Saturday (November 4), which would have seemed an ideal opportunity to unleash Percival and find out what he really can do. Instead we are all left wondering why our man was even selected for the squad if he can’t get in to the team ahead of a square peg in a round hole like Bateman.
Roby Still England’s Best 9
For many, and despite an absolutely vintage end to the 2017 season, James Roby was a surprise inclusion in the England World Cup party. The feeling was that the Saints man had slipped down the pecking order of English hookers. With Josh Hodgson enjoying a successful spell in the NRL with Canberra Raiders since his 2015 move from Hull KR, Hull FC’s Danny Houghton and Warrington’s Daryl Clarke both having won Man Of Steel in the last few years there were those who said Roby should no longer feature for England. At the start of the 2017 season Roby was even left on the Saints bench in favour of Hull KR’s newest recruit Tommy Lee. There was a lot of muttering about saving Roby’s energy for the latter years of his career and flying out to Australia to be England’s main man again at nine didn’t seem part of the plan.
But that is exactly what he is again if his performance against the Australians is anything to go by. Roby came off the bench with Hodgson given the start, but once he entered the fray he was one of England’s leading performers. He made 42 tackles, carrying the ball nine times for 70 metres and scooting out from dummy half eight times. That figure dwarfs Hodgson’s effort of just two, and although it is not the be all and end all in how to play hooker it is a crucial area in the modern game, especially in a tense and fairly conservative encounter like this one. Hodgson was largely disappointing in other areas, making poor decisions in good attacking positions but there is a case for both of them to be on the field at the same time, with one of them perhaps used as a loose forward. This was particularly helpful after Sam Burgess left the field with a knee injury less than 30 minutes in, and shows that there is good depth in Bennett’s squad for the competition going forward.
Yet what the performance of the pair also shows is that Roby is still one of the best hookers in the world. He didn’t look an inch out of place coming up against Cameron Smith in direct opposition and has perhaps shown that he has more life left in him than perhaps we Saints fans feared as we fretted over who would come in to relieve him before the eventual and calamitous signing of Lee. Perhaps we don’t need anyone else because hey, we’ve got James Roby and there isn’t anyone better. Not now and in the opinion of some arguably not ever. Hodgson is set to start again against Lebanon on Saturday in England’s second Group A encounter but look again to Roby to be one of the keys to England’s performance and hopefully a convincing, morale boosting victory.
Same Again….For Now….
With the exception of Burgess, on whose fitness England will be sweating over the next few weeks, Bennett has decided to go with exactly the same team against Lebanon. Ben Currie will come in to deputise for Burgess but there will be no start for Percival ahead of Bateman at centre and Roby will have to wait for his moment to shine from the bench once more as Hodgson takes the starting role.
In all likelihood this will not prevent England from recording a win against the Lebanese, who surprised France 29-18 in their Group A opener on Sunday morning (October 29). Brad Fittler’s side shouldn’t have enough across the park to challenge England but knowing that wouldn’t it have been prudent for Bennett to try a few different combinations in this one? Might it not have been better to introduce George Williams to see what he could do ahead of Luke Gale who, quite frankly, kicked poorly and was a defensive weakness against the Australians?
With Burgess out, Alex Walmsley will come into the 17 after missing out on his debut in Melbourne with a virus. He will certainly provide something different to the England attack but largely Bennett is sticking with what he has. You get the feeling that this is a man who doesn’t like too much change. Perhaps there is something to be said for that. England won’t miss out on lifting the trophy on December 2 due to a lack of continuity. But they may be left with a feeling that they could have done something more, or at least something different, if they ultimately fall short.