HULL FC’S Danny Houghton has made England’s elite performance squad at last, but the reigning Man of Steel believes he still has to better last season’s stunning form to stand any chance of World Cup selection.
The uncapped Black and Whites hooker was controversially overlooked for the Four Nations last autumn by Wayne Bennett despite clearly winning the vote as Super League’s finest player and helping his hometown club to Challenge Cup glory.
Houghton did get the nod yesterday, though, as the national coach named a 31-man EPS, including Castleford Tigers’ exciting untried back-row Mike McMeeken, to regularly meet through the forthcoming campaign ahead of the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand at the end of the year.
Admittedly, two other hookers are also included: Warrington Wolves’ Daryl Clark, who was in the Four Nations, and St Helens’ experienced Test rake James Roby, back after being omitted for that tournament.
Furthermore, none of England’s NRL contingent are included in this EPS, including the Canberra Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson, who started all of the games in last year’s competition, so Houghton fully realises he still has his work cut out to earn that first cap.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I imagine I will have to go better this season than I did when I won the Man of Steel.
“I didn’t do enough then to get in with England so to go that one step further and make the World Cup I feel I will have to improve even more.
“It will take a big effort, but all I can do is my best and I’m chuffed to bits about this selection.
“It’s the first time I’ve been in this sort of squad and hopefully I can push on and still be in it come the end of the season for that World Cup.”
England team manager Jamie Peacock called Houghton to inform him he was selected so he has still yet to speak to Bennett, but he insists he has no issues about missing out last term.
“Last year was last year and he made his choices,” said the 28-year-old.
“He picked two great hookers and he didn’t have to explain anything to me.
“This is a new chapter now and hopefully I can put my name forward and show what I can do.
“I have to play well for Hull and we all know here, too, that last season is now forgotten.
“We have to improve as well and make sure that Wembley win wasn’t a one-off.”
He is joined by FC colleague full-back Jamie Shaul who, like Houghton, was in the 2016 Super League Dream team but not considered at England level, plus Scott Taylor, the Hull prop who did make his international debut under Bennett last autumn.
Castleford have four players involved with 22-year-old McMeeken – a revelation since joining from London Broncos in 2014 – joined by scrum-half Luke Gale, the recalled full-back Zak Hardaker and centre Michael Shenton, the Tigers’ captain who missed all of 2016 after rupturing knee ligaments on the first day.
Wigan Warriors’ captain Sean O’Loughlin, who led England to a series victory over New Zealand in 2015, is also called up after missing the Four Nations series through injury.
England assistant coaches Paul Anderson and Paul Sculthorpe, alongside head of human performance Richard Hunwicks, will run six training sessions during the season with the first on Monday, February 27.
Bennett, whose club duties are with Brisbane Broncos, will meet with the squad and Super League coaches in mid-February to outline England’s World Cup plans and to review their Four Nations campaign when the hosts failed to reach the final.
Three sessions in the first phase build up to a Test against Samoa on Saturday, May 6 in Sydney and the squad for that is announced in April.
After Samoa, Bennett and his staff will review performances of the EPS and other England-based qualified players to select a training squad in late May/early June for the second phase with the remaining three sessions starting on Monday, June 26.
“What we have put in place for the players is a programme that will enable them to spend required time together in an international environment,” he said, his plans for a 12-day warm-weather training camp in Dubai earlier this month controversially axed before Christmas.
“Our selection includes a mixture of the England-based players from last year’s squad, returning names who have previously been in the programme and some new faces who have been performing in Super League.
“There’s a lot of talented and committed individuals in this group who are well aware that success in a World Cup tournament doesn’t come easy. Preparation is key and we need everyone to be fully focused throughout the year.”
England 31-man elite performance squad: L Gale, Z Hardaker, M McMeeken, M Shenton (all Castleford), L Cudjoe, J McGillvary (Huddersfield), D Houghton, S Taylor, J Shaul (Hull FC), B Ferres, R Hall, S Ward, K Watkins (Leeds), K Amor, J Greenwood, J Lomax, M Percival, J Roby, M Smith (St Helens), K Brown, D Clark, M Cooper, B Currie, C Hill, S Ratchford (Warrington), J Bateman (Wigan), J Burgess, L Farrell, S O’Loughlin, S Tomkins, G Williams (Wigan).