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England make Giants step forward

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George Riley George Riley | 12:34 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

Eighteen months ago, I sat down to write a feature about Huddersfield's new £250,000 youth development programme and the club's commitment to bringing through British rugby league talent.

This week, the Yorkshire club were celebrating having more players in England's Four Nations squad than anyone else. Half a dozen players from the Giants will fly out to Australia and New Zealand to compete against the co-hosts and Papua New Guinea. A couple of years ago, such a scenario would have appeared ludicrous.

England coach Steve McNamara told BBC Radio 5 live this week that he found it "quite difficult" to settle on his final 24 - and he certainly caused a stir with the number of Huddersfield players he picked.

Scrum-half Luke Robinson, cast aside by Wigan after struggling to fulfil his early promise, marks his impressive return to prominence with a selection so surprising it has derailed his own marriage plans.

An October wedding seemed a safe call for a player whose only international experience came in 2002 when he played in the England Academy side that toppled the Aussie schoolboys. But his form and - as he will admit himself - injuries to the likes of Danny McGuire, Kyle Eastmond and Kevin Sinfield prompted logistical chaos as he was handed a place on the England plane.

Fair play to the 60 relatives who will still fly to Cyprus to enjoy a holiday rather than the sunshine ceremony for which they had signed up. "A few family members are a bit miffed at paying for a wedding and just getting a holiday," said Robinson, who said the rearranged do will now take place in the more earthy environs of Halifax when he returns.

Robinson's rise, or indeed his second coming, epitomises the project put in place by Huddersfield chief Richard Thewlis, who sat me down in April 2009 to put right what he saw as some of the media misconceptions of the way Giants structured their squad.

Thewlis, the club's managing director, was frustrated, angry even, at the way he felt the press criticised his club for failing to nurture home-grown talent, opting instead to splash big cash on big-name Aussie imports. "The best way to predict the future is to create it ourselves," he told me that day.

You could forgive Thewlis for turning up at the airport to proudly wave the England squad off from the runway as Robinson, Leroy Cudjoe, Shaun Lunt, Eorl Crabtree, Darryl Griffin and Kevin Brown jet off to arm wrestle with the best in the world.

Cudjoe is in the squad on merit and fans will hope he will add a powerful spark to the traditionally thin-looking England backline. Brown, like Robinson, is a resurgent former Wigan Warrior, thriving across the Pennines. Griffin and Crabtree provide real bulk in the pack, while young hooker Lunt is the unknown quantity.

I like the look of the England pack. In fact, I reckon we could prove formidable up front. In Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess, we have two Australian-based forwards who have not just proved themselves in the NRL but have been two of the best players in the competition in their debut seasons.

England coach Steve McNamara

Steve McNamara caused a stir with the number of Huddersfield players he picked

But the England forwards are rarely an issue because we have such an abundance of quality in the pack. The age-old problem is a lack of depth in the backs and, as loathe as I am to voice concerns before we have even locked horns with Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, I do worry.

With every respect to St Helens-bound Michael Shenton - a terrific but still relatively raw prospect - my pal Ryan Atkins, who has had an excellent season at Warrington, Harlequins' Tony Clubb, Wigan winger Darrell Goulding and Robinson himself, these are not names you can imagine filling the Aussies or Kiwis with dread.

So does McNamara worry about the lack of depth in this area?

"It's not a problem but I do think we could have more," he said. "That's a long-term project and we have got to bring through more quality backs. I'm not too concerned about it and am happy with the squad I've got."

With Sam Tomkins sparkling this season and really relishing the chance to prove his class against the world's best, McNamara does have match winners. He would have loved to take Eastmond but the Saints player has become worryingly injury-prone.

One of Eastmond's club-mates told me the half-back was like the team's Ferrari. He needs looking after and can often stay in the garage for weeks on end but when he emerges for a spin you stand back and say "wow" as he flashes by, oozing class at full throttle. But then it is not long before he is back in the garage for some more bodywork.

A year ago, you would have expected Warrington's Richie Myler to be on the plane, too. He is another cocky young star with that je ne sais quoi. Yet it is Myler himself who is asking "pourquoi?" after a season in which he has gone from England international to a player who cannot even make his club team.

So England head down under with a powerful, experienced pack and a young, new-look backline. They will need time to establish themselves but, as fans, we are impatient. I have hosted a few events over the last few months with coaches, like McNamara, and lose count of the amount of times I ask them how close we are to bridging the gap between ourselves and the southern hemisphere super powers.

In truth, we are big outsiders to topple Australia and New Zealand this autumn - McNamara will tell you that himself. He has picked young players on form and we have to applaud him for that and afford the squad the time it needs.

If you examine McNamara's selections, you can find all manner of reasons for concern if your England pint pot is half empty rather than half full. For example, back-up centre Clubb, while having bags of power going forward, is Super League's leader in missed tackles on 92, more than Keith Senior, Kirk Yeaman and Martin Gleeson combined, none of whom are in the squad.

I offered out that stat on Twitter and got accused of undermining players' confidence before they had even had a go. Perhaps rightly so. We have tried the likes of Senior and Gleeson and it has not worked for us. Senior's international days are gone anyway.

Darrell Goulding could not stop scoring tries for Wigan this season, his 25 touchdowns second only to Man of Steel team-mate Pat Richards. But how much did he rely on his in-form centre Gleeson? The cynics may argue the same could be said of Saints winger Ade Gardner, who gained international recognition after running in hatfuls of tries outside Jamie Lyon and Matt Gidley. Goulding, of course, has not had his chance yet and fully deserves it given the fruitful season he has had.

But what can we hope for from England and realistically what can this squad achieve? I am excited about what is possible. But the worrier in me thinks we could get walloped. "Continued improvement is the goal," stated McNamara. "That is the only target. If that happens we will enjoy ourselves."


  • Comment number 1.

    Another interesting read George that I think captures the very real underwhelming feeling about the team we are sending down to the 4N. I know Australia have lots of injuries but their strength in depth is so good that they could name a 3rd choice team and still end up winning!

    Ellis and Burgess are reliable standouts in the forwards and Lunt and Roby could be interesting as hooker interchanges (if he uses Lunt in this role). Morley can be effective in short bursts as well. Whilst I agree we have had good forwards over the past few years, we need forwards capable of the 80minute workload of say a Nathan Hindmarsh who will make 40+ tackles and 40+ hitups. JJB at Leeds looked to be developing into this a few years back but hasn't seem to have kicked on but I think Ellis perhaps gives us this which could be crucial.

    Our backline has looked pedestrian when compared to Australia and has been bullied by New Zealand (in particular their massive winger Vatuvei) over the past few years. Tomkins and Atkins have had phenomenal seasons and could shine, but Robinson will be targetted for his size and the other players I just can't see performing at the highest level for every game. The sheer aggression of the Southern Hemisphere teams could be a new experience to one or two of the players as well so will be interesting to see how they cope with that.

    Mcnammara was a surprise choice of coach in many ways but he will be helped by the NRL Grand Final coach Brian Smith which may give us an extra dimension: it certainly helped the Kiwis having Wayne Bennet for the world cup!

  • Comment number 2.

    For me, Sam Tomkins has to play at full back, with probably Brown and Robinson in the halves. I'd also play Cudjoe instead of Briscoe, not just for his goal kicking, but also for his versatility, should we get any injuries during the game. Pack picks itself, with Lockers finally fit for an international series, at 13.

    Feel sorry for Lynch and Higham who should have been on the plane.

  • Comment number 3.

    You couldnt be more wrong IMHO, the strength of the British pack has long been an issue. Every year we play in these Test tournemants we hear "oh we've got the best pack by a country mile" "Peacock and Ellis would walk into the Aussie pack" "blah blah blah"

    Fact is every year the British pack are overwhelmed during the course of the game by their Antipodean opponents, who's dominance then lays the platform for their halfbacks to feed quality ball to backs in space and tear through our backline.

    Martin Gleeson, Keith Senior, Paul Newlove, Gary ConnollY, Jason Robinson and a whole host of other top quality backs, still havent been able to get one over on the Aussies. Why? Because British forwards are poor in comparison to Australian forwards and fail to dominate their opposition and get us on the front foot where our half backs can do the bizzo.

    There is only one British forward that would make the Aussie first 17 if he was eligable and that is Sam Burgess.

    Aussies churn forwards out like the rest of ours are every single year.

  • Comment number 4.

    It's interesting Madbull, you think Sam would be the only British forward to make it in the Aussie first 17? This despite the fact Ellis has been the better player all year, by some distance.

    With all due respect, you sound like someone who doesn't watch the NRL much, if at all. Infact, you sound like someone who doesn't watch League in general much, if at all.

    Last year the pommy forwards were the dominant pack in the Four Nations, and almost went on to win the competition themselfs. England of course didn't, because of the lacklustre backs, who failed to capitalise on their forward platform and allowed Australia to slot kicks behind them, set after set.

    To suggest the British pack was overwhelmed isn't just out and out ridiculous. It's objectively wrong. Men lie, women lie, numbers don't.

    That said, the Australian pack is getting better and better and they'll match us. As will the Kiwis. They may even roll over us, who knows. There's one thing for certain, and that's that our forwards aren't the problem. Let me repeat that in a new paragraph to make that clear...

    The Forwards Aren't The Problem.

  • Comment number 5.

    I definitely agree with BorthwickSNose regarding the English pack; it is able to compete with and beat the other teams that are superior in other areas. Leading on from that; our backline is inexperienced relatively, but does have talent that given more exposure at international level, will be more competitive in the future.

    Sam Tomkins will make a big impression whether he is played at 1 or in the halves, such is the calibre of the man.

    I think we are all agreed that although there is a good bit of trepidation at some of the coach's selections, competition may well be a cracker with England ruffling some Antipodean feathers.

  • Comment number 6.

    Borthwick, you're dead right when you say numbers don't lie. Just go and have a look at the results for the past 30 years. We British like to cling to hope that our forwards are the best in the buisness. It isn't true my man, as proven time and time again when theyve been battered and bruised and on the end of the wrong scoreline against NZ and Aus.

    No they wern't the dominant pack, the Aussies were, as shown when they beat us twice in 3 weeks, but blame the backs aye, instead of the guys that are meant to be the driving force.

    The Aussie forwards have been better than ours for a long time, and nothing will change this test series, as much as I want it to.

    I dont just mean we were overwhelmed last season, but for 3 decades the Aussie big men have shown our so called hard men how its done. Thats not a lie my main man, it's down in numbers, as you say.

    If you believe that its just our backs that are the problem, then more fool you buddy.

  • Comment number 7.

    'Darrell Goulding could not stop scoring tries for Wigan this season, his 25 touchdowns second only to Man of Steel team-mate Pat Richards. But how much did he rely on his in-form centre Gleeson?'

    To answer your question Andrew, of his 25 tries it is only possible that Martin Gleeson contributed four direct assists which is quite poor for a centre really, Gleeson's performance at Old Trafford was misleading as he's had an average season.

    When you look at Adrain Gardener his stats are completely different. Unlike Goulding, Gardener's centres like Lyon and Gidley directly helped him out in his strongest years.
    (Of course these stats don't mean every centre assist was to their winger but the majority of them will be.)
    2006- Ade Gardener 24 tries, Jamie Lyon 20 assists.
    2008- Ade Gardener 25 tries, Matt Gidley 22 assits.
    2010- Darrell Goulding 25 tries, Martin Gleeson 4 assits.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great article. Let's not go there underestimating ourselves. We have as good a chance as any. Dealing with the Aussie press and different rule 'interpretations' will be the main challenges.

  • Comment number 9.

    "No they wern't the dominant pack, the Aussies were, as shown when they beat us twice in 3 weeks, but blame the backs aye, instead of the guys that are meant to be the driving force."

    The saying 'Forwards win games' isn't literal. They can't win games themselves.

    The backs are the problem. Go ask an Australian or a Kiwi what they're worried about. I can assure you it isn't your backs, lol.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ellis has been far better than Burgess. The South Sydney is still getting to grips with the NRL comp, Ellis has mastered it. Tim Sheens (Aussie Coach) has said he would include Ellis if he were Aussie.

    The England backs are the real worry. No class. Static catching the ball style & no invention. That's the big problem. Maybe Brian Smith can coach a few NRL style plays...

  • Comment number 11.

    It nice to read the "competition for competitions sake" guys occasionally. Find the copycat girls harder to take. Femininity does not fit well in a ferret hutch. Final analysis. TAKES ALL SORTS. I would like to go to a rugby party. (preferably the wenches. ) Max you know who

  • Comment number 12.

    Dont get me wrong, I did go bonkers when England won world cup in aussie

  • Comment number 13.

    What is this life so full of care. I chase a rabbit and catch a hare

    G.L does not seem to blog.

  • Comment number 14.

    @ KJWarrior

    Widdop will play fullback and will be doing the kicking for goal (providing we actually score a try that is). Briscoe will also start ahead of Cudjoe and deservedly so. Not only is he a better finisher but his work in the exit sets will be invaluable to Englands chances. I'll have a sneaky fiver with anyone that Briscoe wins more penalties for his team than anyone else in the comp.

  • Comment number 15.

    Robbo4444 - Hope you're wrong. Nothing against Widdop, but he's only played 3 or 4 first grade games all season, whereas Sam has been ripping Super League up from FB over the last few months!

    Not much to choose between Briscoe and Cudjoe tbf - I'd just go with Cudjoe for his goal kicking and greater versatility.

  • Comment number 16.

    KJWarrior - If we were stronger in the halfs I'd agree with you but unfortunately Sam is going to have to play at Half Back in my opinion.

    On Cudjoe, I dont actually think he is that good a goal kicker and I'm not sure what versatility he brings? He could go to Full back if needs be yes but so could Sam if he starts in the halfs.

  • Comment number 17.

    "The saying 'Forwards win games' isn't literal. They can't win games themselves."

    I know it is not, I never said it was.

    The British forwards havent put us in a position to win a series for 30 years, hence why we havent won one.

    Not the backs that are the problem buddy, its the forwards. Not good enough to get us where we need to be for the HB's and backs to capitalise.

  • Comment number 18.

    Obvious troll is now obvious.

  • Comment number 19.

    You're kidding yourself buddy.

  • Comment number 20.

    The potential for England in this year's 4 Nations needs to be seen in context. McNamara wasn't my first choice but I'll stand by the theme he comes back to regularly in this and other pieces, that this is a period of development for the international outfit.

    To many, the selected squad is not the truest reflection of the best talent we have in our domestic competition. Others may look to specific selections and say, even taking into account obvious injuries and forced omissions, that better players have been left at home. This is valid in some cases, of course. However, even adding the missing talent to the best of the players McNamara has selected, we would still be looking at a new chapter for England and a promising period for development and improvement on the international scene - all in a competition we wouldn't necessarily dominate.

    In my mid-30s, I've grown up with tours and competitions where even the closest we've come to toppling our Antipodean cousins hasn't quite been enough. We continue to learn from the NRL, the imports (players and coaching staff), investing in youth development and as this season has shown - developing a more openly competitive league at home. These factors, together with bright young talent that will benefit from top level international experience and we have a future.

    Maybe we should see how we get on, judge on the positives, address any concerns moving forwards, nurture the potential and enjoy the opportunity of us fielding new players at the top level.

  • Comment number 21.

    Why are the RFL so bothered about gearing up for the next world cup. Whats wrong with sending a team to try and win this years comp?

    This team isnt going to do it because its so weak all over.

    Blooding youngsters for the future is ridiculous. We should pick the best players available now and the best players available then.

  • Comment number 22.

    I think you need to look beyond the 4 Nations though Madbull. Seriously, you think with the players available, there is a tournament-winning side/squad that could have been selected?

    I don't want to come across as negative - far from it. However, this situation is nothing new and I reckon being in charge of the national side is a poisoned chalice; Everybody except McNamara seems to have the solution.

    I watched a lot of NRL this year plus the State of Origin, as I have done regularly for many years. There is still an evident gulf which won't right itself over the course of one tournament such as this one. Building and introducing the next generation has to be the first step towards closing that gulf. Otherwise, how do we replace the retiring/ close to retiring players?

    Sooner or later we won't have Peacock or Morley to be the "experience" in the sqaud. That's coming in the next year or two.The majority of their compadres of the last 5-7 years have already retired from internationals or have had their chance(s) and been rightly ousted. The youngsters need to come through and the only way to ensure that happens is to get them on the pitch. Club rugby and international are far apart and a rookie club star does not a world-beater make... at least not without the opportunity to rise to the challenge.

    I'd love this gang of underdogs to blow the opposition off the field and let's be honest, considering the evident consensus amongst fans - it wouldn't just surprise the Aussies. Maybe less expectation from fans is all the motivation the lads need, to show why they've been picked... to prove what McNamara has seen in them, leading to them being selected.

    I see a very similar outcome to this competition to those we've grown used to. Beating PNG, doing enough to beat New Zealand and losing out overall to Australia. How would that differ from the last 30 years? Not much if you ask me, which is why it's time for the new era to begin. We'll be no worse off for the experience and may even gain from it.

    But hey Madbull, I'm an analyst for a living - not a manager. I don't know if we'll get whalloped or not. One thing for sure though, I'll be behind whatever 17 turn out for each match as I'm sure you will be. Even if you would have picked a different side.

  • Comment number 23.

    I've witnessed England/GB force plenty of repeat sets in this comp since it started in 2004. Trouble is, they haven't had the skill & pace in the backs (along with good coaching) to then get over the line for a try.

    Every play is telegraphed & the players catch the ball standing still. If this could be addressed, then things might change.

    More of them playing & being coached in the NRL is a positive step. The further away from Bradford & Macca the better!

    Sorry Bulls fans. Nothing personal.

  • Comment number 24.

    When you look at the squad we are taking compared to the squad we could have taken you are kidding yourself if either would have a chance of winning this competition. So it makes sense to give some players experience of the international competition and see how they fare.

    Without an Origin to step up to, all our players have to test themselves on is a lacklustre French side who are below the standard of the teams that our players play in Superleague week in week out.

    The argument about the quality of our forwards shouldn't be had. Regardless of whether our pack could beat the Aussies with a decent back line, it is 100% certain that the strength of the English side is in the forwards. Right now we also have a lot of experience in the pack. Now is the time to give new younger players a chance in the backs.

    Robinson is getting a lot of stick and people will point to his size and say he will be targeted (he will be). But that happens to halfbacks regardless of their size. Robinson and Brown have had great seasons in the halves and some people need to get over the fact they don't play for a more, for want of a better word, fashionable club. Lets give a proven club partnership a go against the Aussies and see what happens.

    Bar a huge huge huge dollop of luck I'm not expecting anything from this competition, however I will be looking out for those players who will be looking to take the fight to the Aussies for the next 10 years and hopefully give me something to cheer. I'm a Cas fan so I bloody need something.

  • Comment number 25.

    Hehe Rhintintin - indeed - it's not been a great one for Cas this year.

    Totally agree with what you say re: blooding the future nucleus of the international side. Also reckon you've got a point re: Robinson. Fans of the fashionable clubs often can't see past their own boys being selected which goes some way to devalue other players that could be just as up to the task. At the end of the day they're guys doing the same job at their own club and getting results along the way.

    One player I'm lookig forward to watching when he gets his chance is Lunt. Admired his game from the tv games I've seen this year. He's got a good brain and some good ideas. Huddersfield have had another good year and the bar is being progressively raised at Galpharm and they are playing upto their ambitions. Couple more seasons of similar progress could change the order of things. Every one of the Giants lads selected will be brimming with confidence. Yes, of course some of them have got their chance due to injuries to first choicers but ultimately - they're still there on merit for good form this year. If any of them had poor seasons (which I can't say any of them have) they wouldn't be selected and the squad would be weaker still.

    Personally I'd like to have seen Myler there but hey ho - he's struggled to get into the Wire starting line-ups so based on that, his omission is fair if you ask me.

  • Comment number 26.

    I really enjoyed this discussion, but unfortunately I think it will all be academic in the end as Australia are just far far too strong. Whilst Ellis and Burgess may make the Australia squad it is worth noting that Ben Creagh did not, and yet he was voted by (St George) players and coaches as the Player of the Year for the team that was Minor and Major Premiers in the NRL this season. Someone also mentioned Hindmarsh in this post and while I think he is also a classy performer he does not even make the NSW squad any more. Until we get somewhere close to this sort of strength in depth in forwards and backs we will always struggle. I just hope Burgess and Ellis manage to persuade more players to head down under.

    I must admit I don't get to watch much Superleague since moving to Oz, but Widdop is a bit part player at best so I hope they stick with Tomkins who is playing regularly. Whatever team is picked, I really hope we are competitive but I have big fears we will end up on the end of some proper hidings.

  • Comment number 27.

    Good points Dan. Ultimately, I think you're bang on there but we'll cheer our lads on no matter what and no doubt you'll get some stick at your local.

    The depth is a much bigger issue than fielding a strong 24 to take to a competition going way beyond the selection process. It starts at grass roots and goes all the way through to international quotas in super leage if you ask me.

    That's bizarre that Ben Creagh hasn't made it into the Australian squad. What a talent and what a season! Must be a terrible situation to be in for their selectors... having so many quality players that such calibre can be left out. The antithesis of some of our choices you could say - where we simply had nobody else to pick that is close to international standard in some positions. I'm not talking generally there - I am genuinely chuffed to see some of the young guys getting their chance!


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