HULL FC head coach Lee Radford last night said England debutant Joe Westerman is already good enough to face Australia – even if captain Sean O’Loughlin returns in time to lead the tourists against the world champions.
The Airlie Birds’ loose forward celebrated his first call-up yesterday when he was named at 13 for Saturday’s Four Nations opener against Samoa in Brisbane.
O’Loughlin, the obvious choice to take over England’s captaincy when Leeds Rhinos’ Kevin Sinfield recently retired from the international scene, has failed to shake off a quad injury suffered in Wigan Warriors’ Grand Final defeat to St Helens 11 days ago.
England coach Steve McNamara, who has instead made Canterbury Bulldogs prop James Graham captain versus Samoa, fully expects the influential 31-year-old to be fit to face the Kangaroos the following weekend.
However, Radford does not believe that will necessarily see rookie Westerman miss out, arguing he is more than capable to switch to second-row and hold his own there, too.
“As far as rugby nous and talent goes, there’s not many in our comp’ with more than Joe,” he told The Yorkshire Post about the 24-year-old who is joined in the starting line-up by fellow debutant Josh Hodgson, the Hull KR co-captain and hooker.
“He’s a great footballer and is definitely ready to face not just Samoa but Australia and New Zealand, too.
“He’s been really good for us this year and this is probably reward for the season he has had and the hard work he’s put in.
“I’m chuffed for him and hopefully he’ll deliver a performance to cement his spot to face the two big boys as well. I know that will be difficult as Sean (O’Loughlin) is captain, but I’m sure Joe can fit in the back-row if needed.
“He’s played there a lot earlier in his career and, though it is a different role to what he does for us at Hull, he’s a talented kid and a real competitor.”
Westerman rose to prominence at hometown Castleford Tigers and won Super League’s Young Player of the Year in 2007.
He secured a £100,000 switch to Hull three years later, but initially struggled for consistency.
This term, however, despite playing for a side that finished 11th, he has matured significantly and proved a telling force for the East Yorkshire club.
Radford added: “He needed to make some changes off the pitch this year and he’s done that.
“And the role he now plays for us really suits him. A lot of our shift-plays tend to start with or around him and that’s benefitted his game massively.
“Joe’s really enjoyed that and we’re hoping now he’s playing for England, being in and around a squad with people like O’Loughlin and seeing how they prepare, can help him kick on and go to another level with us in 2015.”
McNamara, who has selected nine Yorkshiremen in his 17, including Castleford hooker and 2014 Man of Steel Daryl Clark who will debut from the bench, said: “It’s a blow losing Sean because he’s our leader and obviously a really, really good player.
“But I’m really happy with his replacement. Joe had a great season for Hull FC, a team that didn’t make the top eight, and to be a real stand-out for them shows what a quality player he is.”
Wigan scrum-half Matty Smith also makes his bow while there is the expected recall for Castleford captain Michael Shenton at centre alongside Leeds Rhinos’ Kallum Watkins.
Hodgson, who will stay in Australia at the end of the tour to take up a two-year contract with Canberra Raiders, has been given the nine jersey but McNamara also expects the Warrington-bound Clark to make an impact.
“Daryl’s (the) Man of Steel and has been the best player in the competition this season so there is no doubting his ability,” he said.
“Josh is a tough, tenacious player and I think for this game, his robust start will help us. Daryl’s undoubted electric speed will also help when he comes on when the sting goes out of the game.”
McNamara’s one major surprise pick is Wigan’s second-row Joel Tomkins, whose appearance in the Grand Final was only his seventh in rugby league since his return from a three-year stint in union with Saracens. He gets the nod ahead of Super League Dream Team second-row Elliott Whitehead, the uncapped former Bradford Bull who has been prolific for Catalans Dragons.
Huddersfield Giants’ Brett Ferres, such a star in last year’s World Cup, only makes the bench, showing just what competition Westerman faces if he is to force his way in at second-row.
“Joel is very experienced and a very good player,” McNamara said. “He fought his way back into the Wigan team, played in a Grand Final and has been in this group before. He brings a whole lot of leadership and energy into the group. He’s a tremendous player to have back with us.”