ENGLAND’S head coach Wayne Bennett says there are only “two or three” spots up for grabs as he continues preparations for his side’s crucial game with Australia.
Granted, they play minnows Scotland in Coventry on Saturday initially and must first beat them to keep their Ladbrokes Four Nations alive.
However, for all they will not admit it publicly, the national side must also have one eye on their fixture with the Kangaroos the following Sunday, too.
They have to win that as well to stand any chance of reaching the final and, given an England side has not done so since 1995, the size of the task is significant
It means Bennett, the head coach, is in a difficult position with this weekend’s selection.
On one hand, he wants to largely give the side who lost narrowly 17-16 against New Zealand on Saturday another chance to gel and build fluidity.
However, any changes the 66-year-old does make will leave players with only 80 minutes to bed in before that critical challenge with the world champions.
“I’m trying to stay as close to the team I think will play Australia,” said Bennett yesterday at a press conference at their Birmingham hotel.
“I’m not going to make too many changes, but want to give everyone in the squad a game and I’ll make sure I do that this weekend. Stevie Ward is the one exception who won’t play.
“We want another game playing together and getting used to each other.
“We did a lot of things right at the weekend; we’re not way behind, we’ve just got to tidy up some areas.
“The number one thing we can’t do is beat ourselves up; structure-wise and the way we attacked and defended was fine.
“I am fairly close to knowing the team that will play Australia. There’s two or three spots up for grabs.”
The only players who have not played in the warm-up against France and Four Nations opener versus the Kiwis are Leeds Rhinos’ Ward – a late replacement for injured club-mate Brett Ferres – and Wigan Warriors duo George Williams and Liam Farrell.
There will be one enforced change as Canterbury Bulldogs prop James Graham has a “small medial tear” and, though Bennett says his vice-captain should be alright for the following week, it would be no surprise if he did miss Australia, too.
Either way, Hull FC front-row Scott Taylor might get an opportunity this week to stake a claim while St Helens centre Mark Percival is expected to replace Dan Sarginson, who under-performed against New Zealand.
Bennett confirmed Williams, the vibrant 22-year-old half-back, would play which might mean Castleford Tigers scrum-half Luke Gale, who has started both matches this autumn, misses out.
“I thought Luke in defence (against New Zealand) was outstanding; he’s not got a reputation for that over here, but was really good,” he said.
“I just thought he lost his way a little bit. It was his first big match for England and he just let a few things slip by.
“He’s a very talented football player and I said to him today I just want him to have the ball in his hands a bit more.
“I saw George Williams play in the finals for Wigan; he’s a quality player.”
Second-row Farrell, man of the match in Wigan’s Grand Final victory, will come into the equation somewhere while captain Sam Burgess has some “soreness” but trained yesterday and is expected to play.
Bennett said he is yet to assess Scotland, who lost their opener 54-12 against Australia at Hull KR on Friday.
“I don’t really know that much about Scotland,” said the Australian.
“I’ll start looking at the video of them soon, but I know they’ve got good players who play in both Super League and the NRL and they’ll be a difficult challenge.
“They’ll be more than competent, I know that much already.”
He maintained there is no pessimism in his own squad after a defeat in that Kiwis game, which had been billed widely as a semi-final.
“They’ve had enough losses in their life to be able to handle one on Saturday,” said Bennett.
“I don’t see any reason why the spirits should be poor. I would hope there’s no hangover; there’s disappointment but we move on from it and look forward to Scotland.”
It has become commonplace for England to lose by narrow margins against Australia and New Zealand in recent years, last autumn’s series win against the Kiwis aside.
However, the Brisbane Broncos coach – who took over in February – is adamant there is nothing to stop England usurping Australia and New Zealand.
“There’s a lot of hype here about the NRL and stuff,” he said.
“Sam Burgess is a huge name in our game all over the world, as are guys like James Graham and Josh Hodgson.
“They learned their football in England – they didn’t learn it in Australia.
“They took all that ability over to Australia and there’s no difference between the skill level.
“The difference is the intensity of the competitions.
“We lost too many games by too few points in recent years, but it wasn’t about fitness that beat us over the weekend. It was just some decisions we made.”