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An exciting first squad from McNamara

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George Riley George Riley | 14:02 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010

So as the England coach made his crunch phone calls this week, there was one big surprise looming for a 21-year-old as his address book reached W.

But as Steve McNamara handed a shock call to the Halifax-born, Melbourne-based full-back Gareth Widdop, the news went largely unnoticed as Signor Capello axed his own 21-year-old Theo Walcott, at the same time.

Widdop's rise to prominence was the standout selection in what looks like an exciting first England squad from McNamara, with deserved selections also going to Joel Tomkins, elder brother of Sam, and Bradford prop Nick Scruton.

Gareth WiddopGareth Widdop was the standout selection in an exciting looking England squad

I am particularly pleased for Scruton, who has really proved his point since being allowed to leave Leeds after their 2008 Grand Final win.

I met Widdop in the build-up to Melbourne's World Club Challenge victory over Leeds in February when he took part in a Q&A session with his Storm team-mates.

Emigrating to Australia with his family when he was 16, Widdop has learned his trade from the best in the business in Billy Slater.

When I asked Widdop back in February about the possibility of an England call this year, he was bang up for it. In fact, he could not have been more excited about the prospect and I reckon fans could be in for a treat if he makes his debut against France on 12 June.

In terms of those omitted, I do feel a bit for Eorl Crabtree and Ryan Atkins.

I chatted to Atkins after the announcement and he was clearly disappointed but respected McNamara's decision and admitted his scratchy defence probably cost him a place. He has vowed to pull his finger out and make the end of season Four Nations tour.

Atkins loses out in the centres to Michael Shenton and Chris Bridge. McNamara is clearly a big fan of Shenton and tried his utmost to sign him for Bradford from Castleford last year.

On the wings, Peter Fox has paid the price for some indifferent form thus Tom Briscoe will start opposite Ryan Hall. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Lee Smith earn a recall after returning to rugby league as he again continues to demonstrate his talent as a match-winner.

If we are looking at players who are in form, then Huddersfield's Leroy Cudjoe may have been worth a shot, while I hope to see Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in the fold at some point. Having said that, it is a hugely exciting squad.

I had the pleasure of an evening in the company of McNamara and members of his squad for an England RL fans night at Leigh Sports Village on 27 May.

McNamara hinted to me on the night that Widdop would be included when he talked of the quality of the three players available to him from the NRL. Sam Burgess and Gareth Ellis had already been confirmed in the squad.

The England RL event was a sell-out, the banter was terrific and it really whetted the appetite for the France game at the same venue. You can watch England RL's short video of the night by clicking here.

Steve McNamaraSeveral pundits are backing McNamara to succeed as England coach

The legendary Alex Murphy, one of Britain's greatest ever half-backs, gave a stirring rallying cry, demanding fans give McNamara time and support both team and coach after a difficult couple of years.

"I think the kid (McNamara) will do very well," he said. "We need to give him time - three to five years will be about right - because he is the best coach we have got. I think you'll find out that this fella will be a lot better coach than a lot of people think."

And Murphy added: "We have a tremendous chance to put our game back on top. We need to start believing how good we are and start playing rugby. I think we can go to Australia this year and turn them over."

Murphy's excitement at the dawn of what he hopes is a new era of English rugby league is one shared by England and St Helens prop James Graham.

"I don't think we're a million miles away from Australia and New Zealand," he told the audience. "We made the Four Nations final and we were more than in it after 60 minutes, so we only need a bit of tweaking."

Graham called McNamara the "obvious choice" as coach, while veteran forward Adrian Morley said McNamara had some interesting and exciting ideas. Morley told me he would like to play for England forever before insisting that, at 33, he has now matured from the player sent off after just 12 seconds against Australia in 2003.

"It's no secret that I've overstepped the mark several times in my career, but since I've been Warrington captain I've not been suspended, I've not been sent off or even looked like it, so it's working a treat in that respect," he said. "I think the older you get, the wiser you get. When I was a bit younger, maybe I felt I had a point to prove, but with age comes a bit of maturity."

On hearing that, McNamara grabbed the microphone from me and told Morley he had "to take issue" with his statement. "I've seen at least two games this season when you should have been sent off and the ref let you off," claimed the England coach. The Morley fire still burns bright.

My general feel from spending time with the England boys is that there is belief and excitement about the new breed, led by their new coach.

This France international is a Test match in its own right as well as a stepping stone towards the Four Nations and World Cup. That will be respected by the players given the ferocity of competition for places.

Australia and New Zealand, however, do remain a long way ahead, in my view, and fans could do well to heed Murphy's voice of caution on the time McNamara will require to make his mark.


  • Comment number 1.

    I like the look of the international squad, as it has a nice blend of age and experience. That said I think I'd have given Morley and Peacock the week off and tried some younger props such as McCarthy-Scarsbrook. We know how well those guys play and they'll be there at the end of the season anyway.
    From a Wigan supporter's point of view, I wouldn't mind Madge seeing if Widdop fancied a year on loan over here next season so he can get some game time. Another young English player wouldn't do any harm to the squad and I can't imagine his wages will be that high.

    One final note, can the RFL please sack the person in charge of publicity! I'll take half their wage and not schedule the game when the football's on and announce the squads on the same day. Young player in England squad shock may have made a good headline the day beforehand.

  • Comment number 2.

    Not sure about westwood. He is just an honest plodder. Would have liked Clough from st helens in the squad. Always does the little things and, seemingly, goes pretty much unnoticed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Cheers, George!

    English RL is in good hands with Steve Mac and I wish him all the best. He started at Bradford as a first time coach, in one of the biggest jobs in Super League, and has lasted about 3 years. Now he has propelled himself in to the international coaching position and is very well thought of by players and his fellow coaches alike - I remember watching Skirlaugh at home to Blackbrook about 10 years ago and he was the water carrier.

    Get behind Mac and the players and let's give it our best shot!

  • Comment number 4.

    if mac called up Widdop why didnt he call up Flanagan? plenty of potential and is getting a game for the Tigers in Aus

  • Comment number 5.

    Deluded. Coach talks a great game. Played & Coaches average.

    NRL not worried about SL.

    Gulf is too wide. Calling up NRL based players a good move. The other fella from Balmain should be included as he is getting game time for the Tigers.

    Still no world class halves or centres.

    Aussies have lost special k & folau to AFL, still plenty of options to go with...

  • Comment number 6.

    SouthsNZ makes some good points (in the usual one-eyed antipodean way) and GB/England do have a long way to go before they can be considered as being on a par with the Aussies. The strength in depth in the NRL is just unbelievable.

    Luckily though, we will never have to play the entire NRL. It's only ever 17 vs 17 and so long as we can get our best 17 on the pitch, and they all play outstandingly well, then we are in with a chance.

    Flanagan is playing well out here but we have a good stock of back rowers to call on. Fullback though is a bit of a barren patch at the moment so why not call up Slater's apprentice?

    Macnamara is unproven. Not won anything with Bradford, nor ever looked like it. The sooner we can get former greats back in to League with proven coaching pedigree, the better.

  • Comment number 7.

    Rather give a young talent whos getting a game in the NRL a chance rather than O'loughlin (dont see why so many rate him either) give Flanagan a place on the bench as he will soon be superior to O'loughlin if he isnt already.

    Souths - we have a lot of exciting young players and we beat NZ and competed with Aus for 60 minutes last year - eastmond j&s tomkins burgess flanagan widdop graham briscoe are all young and 3 of them are learning from some of the best out in Aus and eastmond could more than likely join them soon as much as i hate to say it as a saints fan.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm an Englishman living & working in Auckland, NZ who supports the Bunnies.

    I get to watch the NRL first hand on Sky NZ (every game per round) & live at Mt. Smart stadium.

    The standard of the game in Aus/Nz is way higher than the SL. Sending English players to play in the NRL comp & getting current NRL coaches to coach in SL is the only way forward. I know Mcnamara isn't. Again, deluded.

  • Comment number 9.

    SouthsNZ - my apologies.

    Floyd - I don't really know if a British halfback can make it out here in Aus. I can't remember the last one, either SH or SO, to come out and carve a niche for themselves. You'd probably have to go back to the 80s or early 90s to find a Brit that was well respected in those positions in Australia

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm not convinced about McNamara, i'm an England supporter til the end but he's just not shone in my opinion.

    Bulls have been average under his coaching and I agree with the person who said that playing Morley and Peacock is a wasted opportunity to blood some younger lads such as Flanagan and McCarthy-Scarsbrook. Whilst I like the prospect of Widdop being a future England international, I also see it as far too much far too soon for a bloke who's only played three or four games of first team rugby - is that really the right credentials to be given an international start?!

    I just hope it isn't all big talking and wishful thinking, we've had 15 years of that and counting.

  • Comment number 11.

    Macnamara probably has it in him to be a top coach. He's just too inconsistent like his team. One week they win at St Helens, the next they lose at home to Crusaders.


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