Gareth Widdop has backed the bold selection of youngster George Williams as his new England half-back partner.
The 20-year-old Williams, Super League’s ‘young player of the year’, has displaced his Wigan team-mate Matty Smith and will be one of four debutants when Steve McNamara’s men kick-off their autumn international campaign against France at Leigh Sports Village this afternoon.
“He’s obviously had a great season in Super League,” said Halifax’s Australia-based Widdop. “He’s a good, young kid and everybody has got a lot of raps on him.
“He’s a very strong ball runner. He’s excited by the opportunity he’s got and I’m looking forward to playing alongside him.”
Wigan coach Shaun Wane gave the academy international a huge vote of confidence at the start of the season by handing him Blake Green’s No 6 jersey but had suggested six weeks ago that an England call-up now might be too soon.
Williams admits he was surprised to get the call but insists he is ready to make the bold step up to senior international level.
“I can see where Waney was coming from, he wants the best for me and the best for Wigan in years to come,” said Williams.
“But 100 per cent I want to play. Representing your country is a dream of mine, it’s every young lad’s dream to play for England, although I’ll be honest, I never thought this opportunity would have come so quickly.”
Williams will make his bow alongside club-mate John Bateman, a specialist back-row who looks set to get the nod at centre ahead of Huddersfield’s Leroy Cudjoe after impressing in the role for the Warriors during the last three months of the season.
The other new faces are winger Joe Burgess and prop Mike Cooper, who get their chances after being unused members of McNamara’s 2014 Four Nations squad.
England arranged today’s fixture to aid preparations for the three-match Test series against New Zealand, which starts in Hull tomorrow week, but caps are at stake.
Widdop said: “It’s a Test match so we want to be going out there and be putting a performance in a getting a win. Saying that, it’s a good opportunity to work on combinations leading into the New Zealand games.”
England ought to be comfortable winners over a French team decimated by withdrawals.
Wakefield prop Mickael Simon becomes their third captain in as many matches following the loss of newly-appointed leader Theo Fages with an abductor strain sustained during his side’s 31-14 win over Ireland last Saturday.
England (probable): Z Hardaker (Leeds); J Burgess (Wigan), J Bateman (Wigan), K Watkins (Leeds), R Hall (Leeds); G Williams (Wigan), G Widdop (St George Illawarra); C Hill (Warrington), J Hodgson (Canberra), J Graham (Canterbury Bulldogs), E Whitehead (Catalans), L Farrell (Wigan), S O’Loughlin (Wigan, capt). Substitutes: J Roby (St Helens), T Burgess (South Sydney), M Cooper (St George Illawarra), B Ferres (Huddersfield).
France (probable): M Escare (Catalans); J Sigismeau (Catalans), J-P Baile (Bradford), O Arnaud (Avignon), S Robin (Catalans); W Barthau (London Broncos), R Marginet (Featherstone); J Bousquet (Catalans), J Boudebza (Hull KR), M Simon (Wakefield, capt), K Larroyer (Hull KR), U Perez (Catalans), G Springer (Castleford). Substitutes (from): M Kriouache (Toulouse), C Boyer (Halifax), F Rouanet (Caracassonne), A Maria (Catalans), B Jullien (Warrington).
Referee: J Child.