England kick-off their World Cup campaign in just 15 days time when they take on the overwhelming favourites for the title Australia in Melbourne. The latest odds have Mal Meninga’s side at 1-4 to retain the trophy they won at Old Trafford in 2013. Disharmony in the New Zealand ranks looks like weakening their challenge this time around with a number of their stars opting to play for Pacific Island nations instead. All of which leaves England looking like the strongest obstacle to an Australian procession.
England coach Wayne Bennett named a 24-man squad on Monday (October 9) following the conclusion of the Super League season and Leeds’ Grand Final victory over Castleford Tigers. With that in mind now seems like as good a time as any to take a look at that squad as well as some of those who haven’t made the final cut, and assess whether we really do have a realistic chance of winning a first World Cup since Stevo could run.
This glaring, blaring and probably impairing absence is that of Zak Hardaker. The Castleford man was nominated for Man Of Steel this season, probably should have won it, and would have been an almost certain choice at fullback. Yet two days before the Tigers were set to take on the Rhinos at Old Trafford it emerged that the troubled Hardaker had been left out of the squad by Daryl Powell for disciplinary reasons. Since then it has emerged that Hardaker has reportedly tested positive for cocaine. He faces a lengthy ban which, if precedent is anything to go by for those failing drugs tests in competition time, could be up to two years. It was a devastating blow for Castleford and probably a major contributing factor in their rather meek effort against Brian McDermott’s side. Equally, it is hugely damaging to England to lose a player of such high calibre, if also of such crass stupidity.
So without Hardaker you might think the chances of Sam Tomkins getting a seat on the plane were greatly increased. Not so. Since his return to Wigan Tomkins has been a shadow of the player who left these shores for the New Zealand Warriors in 2013 but was just starting to find the form during Wigan’s ultimately ill-timed playoff charge. He’ll always be a threat with ball in hand if a little vulnerable defensively, but Bennett has chosen to go without that weapon in his armoury. All of which leaves Jonny Lomax as the only member of the squad who has been playing fullback regularly in 2017. Even he has spent some time away from the position with the arrival of Ben Barba at Saints. Only Stefan Ratchford looks a realistic alternative and that after a season that everyone at Warrington would just rather forget.
Regular readers will know that I long for a time when wingers were picked for their speed and agility, but without slipping back into full reminiscing, tea-on-the-lawn, three-points-for-a-try mode it just isn’t the modern way. Instead Bennett (and most other coaches to be fair) prefers his wingers to be sturdy, powerful men who can batter their way out of trouble when in possession near their own line. To that end it’s Huddersfield Giant Jermaine McGilvary who gets the nod alongside the un-droppable if hardly un-catchable Ryan Hall of Leeds. Hall has an outstanding try-scoring record for his country and with Wigan’s Joe Burgess injured Hall was always going to be a likely starter on the left wing, whether this column likes it or not. Castleford’s Greg Eden couldn’t have done more than the 38-tries he scored this season but there is still a feeling that scoring tries is an inevitable consequence of standing around on Castleford’s left wing for long enough. The ridiculous number amassed by Denny Solomona before his shameful ‘retirement’ and subsequent defection to rugby union seems to offer further evidence of this. Bennett will know all about Eden from their time together at Brisbane Broncos during 2016 and has obviously decided that the former Hull KR man is not what is required at international level. Exit Sets Ahoy!
That philosophy also sees Tommy Makinson miss out although his inclusion would have been a major surprise since he hasn’t received a pass on Saints’ right edge since he was in the academy. The tournament comes too soon for Wigan starlet Liam Marshall while other prolific try-scorers in 2017 Ben Jones-Bishop and Greg Minikin have also been overlooked.
England seem similarly short of numbers at centre where Mark Percival of Saints and Leeds’ Kallum Watkins are the likely starters. Ratchford has also spent some time in that position and could challenge for a spot or else cover should the worst happen. Michael Shenton can consider himself unfortunate after the season he has had for Castleford, while Dan Sarginson also misses out. The fitness of Percival and Watkins could be key to England’s hopes. A couple of injuries along the backline could see Bennett adopt Steve McNamara’s revolutionary idea of playing Wigan second row and all around mouthy nuisance John Bateman in the centres. And we all know how that will end if your name is Ryan Hall. Shenton aside there isn’t really anyone whose form screams at Bennett to select them so the lack of depth is a real handicap.
As it is also in the halves, which given the quality of those in the Australian camp, could yet prove the difference between success and failure for England. That the name of Kevin Brown finds its way into this England selection is both mind-blowing yet entirely indicative of the pickle we find ourselves in when it comes to producing good quality halfbacks. Brown is a fine player, or at least he has been, but he has never really cut it at international level and has an absolute Warrington of a season at..er…Warrington. He moved there to win trophies you will remember, but ultimately found himself slumming it in the Qualifiers.
Brown is unlikely to start, with Man Of Steel Luke Gale the favourite to start at seven alongside either Wigan’s George Williams or boring, bog-standard NRL-related selection Gareth Widdop. Yet again the blame for this probably does not lie with Bennett. Who else is there? Hull’s Marc Sneyd doesn’t quite convince while a quick look around the rest of Super League will show the halfback positions being held down by non-Englishmen. Those shouting Matty Smith at the screen right now need to go for a lie down in a dark room, while Danny Brough has long-since abandoned his Englishness following several stroppy reactions to being overlooked for the likes of Smith down the years. Enough to drive a man to play for Scotland. Might Danny McGuire or Rob Burrow have been worth a punt just for a little bit of something different in this department? Lomax or Ratchford could fit in here but as we have seen they might be needed elsewhere along that backline.
The tale is a somewhat happier one when it comes to England’s forward pack. Yet even here there are one or two left-field selections. Ben Currie is a very fine player but has played just twice this season since coming back from a long-term injury. Hardly the sort of preparation required for the intensity of international rugby league. Mike McMeeken of Castleford has had a great year like many of his Tigers team mates but lacks any international experience so it remains to be seen whether he can make the step up. Chris Heighington can be filed next to Widdop under ‘He’s In The NRL Just Pick Him Will You’. The same cannot be said of former Bradford Bull and Catalans Dragon Elliott Whitehead who, though he has been with Canberra Raiders in recent years, would probably make the grade were he still operating in Super League. The rest of the pack looks strong, with the standouts being South Sydney’s Sam Burgess and ex-Saint, Canterbury Bulldog and soon to be St.George Dragon James Graham. The latter is not exactly in the peak of his career at 32 but is still a genuinely creative, strong-running prop with good leadership qualities also, while Burgess is just one of those players you hand a shirt to and let loose. Wherever you play Burgess he’ll be among the best players on the field against any opposition if he finds his form.
Those two will be vital for England as will the squad’s captain Sean O’Loughlin if he can stay fit. If not, bet your house on his selection for the semi-final which should be the bare minimum achieved by this team despite its limitations. Burgess’ brother Tom is included but George is not. In the barnstorming Alex Walmsley England have a player who can be a real X-Factor, assuming that Meninga and his staff haven’t been doing their homework on who has been lighting up Super League. Meanwhile the excellent Chris Hill is another quality option in the front row for England along with Hull FC’s Scott Taylor. It’s tough to pick the best combinations from that prop group but that is what Bennett is paid for.
James Roby’s recall is well deserved after a sensational season in which he has held Saints together at times, and he will challenge former Hull KR man Josh Hodgson for the starting spot. Last year’s Man Of Steel Danny Houghton is desperately unlucky to miss out and might wish he was a halfback of similar quality. I might wish that as well. Daryl Clarke has regressed since his move from Castleford to Warrington and can’t have too many complaints about being left out.
Lebanon and France await England in Group A after the opener against the Aussies, and although the England squad again looks top heavy in terms of the balance between the forwards and the backs there is every reason to suggest that a place in the final is a realistic aim. And then who knows? No, really. Who knows?