ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara says the unavailability of his two frontline hookers has actually helped him avoid a tricky dilemma ahead of the Four Nations.
He is deprived of Man of Steel candidate James Roby and Wigan Warriors’ Michael McIlorum for the tournament that starts later this month after both pulled out citing injury concerns.
McNamara has named Castleford Tigers’ Daryl Clark – in the running with St Helens star Roby for that major award tonight – and Hull KR’s Josh Hodgson as nines in his 24-man party.
Both are uncapped so there is a clear lack of experience in that crucial role on the tour Down Under ahead of games versus Samoa, Australia and New Zealand but McNamara is not concerned.
“It was disappointing they (Roby and McIlorum) were not available for selection but when you look at the two hookers we do have they are both outstanding young men who have had tremendous seasons,” he said.
“So, if James or Mickey had been available it would have been a very, very difficult choice.
“I’m more than confident that Daryl and Josh can do the job for us. They are both great players and contrasting players, too.
“I think the fact Josh can also play in the back-row helps.
“Rather than always having one hooker taken off to bring the other on, it’s a huge advantage when someone like Josh can go to a different position, like he does with Hull KR.
“We’ve all seen what Daryl has done for Castleford this season.
“With his form and the pace and energy he’ll bring to the group, he will be really good in the tournament.
“Hooker is one of the positions where we had difficult choices to make as there’s four already there and others who are knocking the door down, too.”
Clark, 21, has been a revelation during Castleford’s excellent season this year and his acceleration and line-breaking ability are sure to trouble the world’s best if England’s forwards can win some quick ball.
It is no surprise Warrington Wolves decided to spend £185,000 to activate his release from Wheldon Road for 2015 onwards and his emergence on the international scene is one of the most eagerly-anticipated events of the imminent tournament.
Hodgson is a more crafty footballer who can create opportunities for others with his guile but is very abrasive, too, in defence.
Hailing from Hull, like the national coach, his skills have been acknowledged by Canberra Raiders who have paid Rovers around £100,000 to take him to the National Rugby League next season.
Both Clark and the 24-year-old Hodgson have been involved in the England Knights so are not new to the national side’s systems. Most importantly, each is deemed to have the right character to seize the opportunities now in front of them against the likes of legendary Kangaroos nine Cameron Smith and South Sydney’s Kiwi star Issac Luke.
McNamara, who has picked up important experience himself working as Sydney Roosters’ assistant this year, said the withdrawal of some was inevitable.
“Last year’s World Cup was obviously the highest point of agenda,” he said, England having lost out in the final seconds of an epic semi-final against New Zealand.
“There was a lot of people who played last year who probably could have done with a repair (surgery) but played on through that, got through this season and their bodies now need a break.
“James is one of those and Mickey Mac is another player who – you can all see how whole-hearted he is putting his body on the line – now needs one or two minor issues fixing up, too.”
There were eyebrows raised when the England coach selected just two authentic half-backs – St George Illawarra stand-off Gareth Widdop and Wigan scrum-half Matty Smith – in his squad.
But he told reporters yesterday that, if needed, he will consider using full-back Sam Tomkins at stand-off and bringing in Leeds Rhinos’ Zak Hardaker at No 1.
Hardaker, 22, was thrown out of last year’s World Cup squad for disciplinary reasons but McNamara – who said Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford would also be considered as a half – expects no such problems from him this time. He said: “Zak’s a very, very capable player. We saw that last season and certainly again this season with his performances for Leeds being very good.
“He can play numerous positions and I’m really confident if Zak gets the opportunity to play he’ll go really well for us.”
Off-field problems hindered England last autumn but McNamara says there will be no drinking ban put in place.
“We’ve a brilliant group and any time you get a bunch of young men together you’re going to experience some sort of difficulties,” he said. “Some people choose to deal with that, some choose to turn a blind eye.
“I’m confident we’ll have a really good tour; we’ve got some great leaders in the squad.”