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England's fresh look adds interest to autumn internationals

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George Riley George Riley | 15:40 UK time, Friday, 19 October 2012

It is a scaled-down international series which provides the full-stop to the rugby league year.

There is no Four Nations this autumn given that the World Cup is heading to England and Wales in 2013. Australia and New Zealand have instead stayed at home and played each other in a one-off Townsville Test - the Aussies winning 18-10.

England, therefore, took their elite squad for a training camp in South Africa, before returning to play Wales and France.

France beat Wales 20-6 on Saturday, but, with every respect to those two sides, these autumn internationals are unlikely to do much to help England breach the gap between themselves and the southern hemisphere superpowers. However, they may at least offer an indication of how far they are away from the very best.

Kevin Sinfield

Kevin Sinfield has succeeded Leeds Rhinos team-mate Jamie Peacock as the new England captain. Photo: Getty

England will be expected to win both fixtures under the leadership of new captain Kevin Sinfield. The Leeds skipper succeeds club-mate Jamie Peacock after his international retirement and appears the outstanding choice.

The record-breaking Grand Final winner is the most inspirational leader I have ever watched in the British game, perhaps even across any sport. His back-to-back man-of-the-match performances at the end of the Super League play-offs were a major reason for Leeds's latest Old Trafford triumph.

However, Sinfield's place in the England side is often subject of much debate.

He has been accommodated out of position under previous coaches, but it appears England head coach Steve McNamara is ready to use him as a half-back for these games, with Melbourne's Gareth Widdop having shoulder surgery at home.

With Danny Brough left out and Danny McGuire and Rangi Chase not fit, that leaves Rob Burrow and Richie Myler competing for a place alongside the captain.

There are other notable absentees - Wigan's Man of Steel Sam Tomkins prominent among them - and McNamara is frustrated not to have an end-of-season look at some of his biggest names.

James Graham's moment of madness when biting Billy Slater in the Australian Grand Final has landed the fiery prop a whopping 12-game ban, in-form centre Ryan Atkins opted for an operation last week, while Sam Burgess stays down under with Widdop.

Giant Huddersfield prop Eorl Crabtree has also had surgery since the season's end, while the other two Man of Steel nominees are missing, with James Roby rested and Ben Westwood withdrawing.

The absence of Roby's St Helens team-mate Jon Wilkin provides a real rarity in that not a single Saints player makes the squad.

One man's misfortune is another man's gain and there's a remarkable return to prominence for Luke Burgess.

Known chiefly as Sam's brother prior to his move to Sydney, the man they call "Biffa" has transformed himself from Rhinos squad member to NRL first-teamer, capping a remarkable season with an international call.

No-one will be prouder than mother Julie, who has been raising Sam, Luke and younger brothers Tom and George on her own following the death of their father five years ago.

Tom and George have now joined Luke and Sam at South Sydney. Four British brothers playing for one NRL club is extraordinary, yet all four playing together for England before too long is not out of the question either.

Warrington prop Chris Hill also makes a huge leap up to the international stage less than a year after playing part-time in the Championship.

The squad may have some big gaps but it remains strong enough to beat both Wales and France. Ryan Hall can lay claim to being the world's best winger on present form, while Kallum Watkins and Super League Young Player of the Year Zak Hardaker will look to take their excellent club form on to the international stage.

Alongside Sinfield and Adrian Morley, Gareth Ellis will be another of the older heads and I expect a couple of big performances from him as he prepares to return to Super League with Hull FC next year after his own impressive stint in Australia.

The goal this autumn will be, as McNamara will always tell you, continued improvement. Yet that is particularly difficult to gauge in such a skeleton international schedule and the performances are unlikely to have any bearing on England's opening World Cup match against the Aussies in 12 months' time.

While the England squad is dominated by players from Leeds and Warrington, the France squad is made up almost entirely of Catalan Dragons. Fourteen of their 19-man squad play at the Stade Gilbert Brutus, which means England can expect the Dragons' trademark fire down the middle.

David Ferriol and Sebastien Raguin are playing their final games of league and the veterans will lead from the front. Ferriol will look to finish with a bang before he starts work full time on his own vineyard.

Wales will be desperate for a big performance ahead of the World Cup, not least when England head to Wrexham on Saturday.

Their coach Iestyn Harris is pinning a lot of hope on his more experienced heads to guide some talented youngsters in what could prove a baptism of fire. The retirement of Lee Briers leaves a massive void for Iestyn to fill and I do fear for his young team in this series.

England will expect to win both games and win them well.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "While the England squad is dominated by players from Leeds and Warrington"

    Surely you mean Leeds and Wigan as both have 7 players in.

  • Comment number 2.

    "these autumn internationals are unlikely to do much to help England breach the gap between themselves and the southern hemisphere superpowers" George Riley

    New Zealand have not won in England since 2005 although when we go over there they beat us fairly convincingly.

    Results over the past decade would certainly suggest that the gap is closer than many give England credit for. I think individual NZ player reputation often gives people the impression that they are way ahead of us. It has been t!t-for-tat for a while now but the main difference is that they found a way to beat Australia twice in meaningful finals.

  • Comment number 3.

    @3 Actually it's three finals the Kiwis have beaten the Aussies in 2005 Tri Nations (where they also beat them in Sydney in the same tournament), 2008 World Cup and 2010 Tri nations (having also lost in golden point extra time in 2006 Tri nations). NZ don't fear the Aussies like so many England teams seem to and the Aussies actually respect them.

    The reason why NZ are seen as a better team is because so many of them play in the NRL and in Benji Marshall have arguably the player with the most flair in the competition. A quarter of all Toyota Cup players are now Kiwi as well (although some high profile ones have chosen to play for Australia when they reach first grade) and the Warriors reached all three grade grand finals last year.

    England have got top forwards now in the NRL in Ellis, Graham and the Burgess bros but crucially for the first time in ages a back in Widdop playing at the top level with three of the greatest players at this moment in Slater, Cronk and Cameron Smith. Gareth Widdops performance in this years Grand Final showed he really is getting better and better and I just hope Steve McNamara uses him next year if his form remains good.

    This years internationals are more important for Wales and France I think in order to build a team to do well next year. England should win comfortably but it will have little impact on what happens next year.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ah yes, of course. It is three. Nevertheless, that is all that really seperates us.

  • Comment number 5.

    That NZ can beat Australia and England can't is an enormous difference not a minor one, given that to win anything in international RL, Australia have to be beaten.

  • Comment number 6.

    Where do you begin to analyse the game for England? There are decent enough players in the team to upset the apple cart but when it comes to the 'all important game' England leave themselves in the change rooms! The biggest hurdle in RL is to conquer Australia, I think England are much closer to NZ than ever before. Australia have contested all 13 WC's and have won 9 of them, failing only to reach the final ONCE 60 years ago! Australia don't fear NZ but they do respect them. Even if England got one over Australia you can't just say "yep we're at the same level now". The team would have to win consistently to really gauge the 'gap' between to two sides.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'll be a bit disappointed if Luke Burgess walks into the England team on the back of a decent season in the NRL. Generally English forwards have no problem adapting to the NRL, and with the more simple style of forward play over there often stand out. He's no better than when he left here when he wasn't seen as good enough for the national side.

    Otherwise the squad seems good, looking for a few ruthless displays from the boys.

  • Comment number 8.

    But Luke Burgess has had an outstanding year playing against the best forwards Australia and New Zealand have to offer.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good article George, many thanks. We will not learn much about England in this series, but regular internationals are important to the sport as a whole and hopefully Wales and France will benefit from the experience too.

    I think Sinfield has to play in the same position he does for Leeds; I for one cannot stand loose forwards playing at stand-off. Tried, tested and usually failed.

    That said, Zak Hardacker has been terrific at fullback for Leeds and I would love to see what Sam Tomkins can do at stand-off; he can create space and against Australia we need as many playmakers on the field as possible. Forward power is important, but with Smith, Slater, Cronk and Thurston the Kangaroos always have options when creativity is needed.

    Cheers

 

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