England win poses questions over team spine for rest of World Cup

IS IT too late for Wayne Bennett to rip up his World Cup selection plans and start all over?

Englands Luke Gale collides with the referee during the World Cup Pool A victory over France at the Perth Rectangular Stadium (Picture: NRL Imagery).
Englands Luke Gale collides with the referee during the World Cup Pool A victory over France at the Perth Rectangular Stadium (Picture: NRL Imagery).

Probably not. Indeed, some would argue the England head coach must do so if they are to have genuine hopes of going on to lift the trophy next month.

Granted, Bennett drew plenty of criticism for the side he picked to face France yesterday with one unconventional positional change, a second-row remaining in the centre and five regulars being rested for the final group game.

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As expected, though, his new-look team, with Huddersfield Giants winger Jermaine McGillvary scoring another two tries, still comfortably negotiated the contest to set up a quarter-final against Papua New Guinea in Melbourne on Sunday.

Englands Stefan Ratchford is held back by his shirt as he attempts to find a gap in the French defence (Picture: NRL Imagery).

However, in doing so they also raised serious and unexpected questions about the spine of their team for the rest of the tournament.

For instance, on this form, there is a growing case for James Roby, the stellar St Helens hooker who featured when Great Britain last beat Australia in 2006, to be installed as the starting nine from hereon in.

England look so much more threatening with him at dummy-half than when Josh Hodgson, the Canberra Raiders rake from East Hull who has generally been a mainstay since 2015, operates there.

France – 26-0 down after an electrifying opening 28 minutes from England in Perth – looked petrified every time he picked up and attacked and his greater running ability compared to the rested Hodgson’s will surely be key in the knockout stages.

Englands Stefan Ratchford is held back by his shirt as he attempts to find a gap in the French defence (Picture: NRL Imagery).

But, given it is arguably the most important role on the pitch, is Bennett really going to be bold enough to jettison his regular nine now?

Similarly, what about the impact of Kevin Brown at stand-off and the knock-on effect of the man he replaced – Gareth Widdop – revelling so well at full-back?

Many onlookers thought Warrington Wolves’ Brown would chiefly be left on the sidelines on this tour given the presence of St George Illawarra’s Widdop – rated 2017’s best six in the NRL – Man of Steel Luke Gale and Wigan Warriors’ George Williams.

Yet the 33-year-old reminded everyone of his ability again yesterday, the former Huddersfield Giants captain’s desire to attack the line helping create numerous holes in France’s defence, especially in the one-sided first half.

Brown may have had an arduous first season at struggling Warrington, but Bennett saw what he can do when, coming in as a late replacement for the injured Williams, he flew out to Sydney to face Samoa in May and linked well with Castleford No 7 Gale.

They rekindled that partnership again yesterday and, for the first time in this World Cup, England duly attacked with crisp, penetrative moves, crucially down both edges and not just their favoured right.

They looked more balanced than at any time during the loss against Australia or win over Lebanon, but part of the reason, too, was Widdop’s impact at full-back.

He, of course, deputised for the great Billy Slater there in his Melbourne Storm days and here he sliced through perfectly off Gale’s pass for England’s opening try.

It was Widdop’s ability to squeeze out accurate passes in pressured situations that was most impressive, though, often unleashing his outside backs, which could yet have Bennett thinking that is his best position for this England side.

Much will depend on whether Jonny Lomax, the St Helens No 1, is fit for Sunday’s game against the unbeaten Kumuls, but, even if he is, maybe the England coach should stick with this mix.

Certainly, Brown did enough to suggest he could be handed the reins with Tonga – after their epic win over New Zealand – now expected to await in the semi-finals.

It has been argued that Widdop and Gale simply need time together to flourish fully, but there has long been question marks about Widdop’s impact at Test level from stand-off and maybe it is time to give his rival control.

Changing his favoured six, one and nine, would represent a major U-turn by Bennett, but the way Gale, Brown and Widdop combined for Mark Percival’s 23rd-minute try, for instance, showed just what this team needs.

Stefan Ratchford, James Graham and John Bateman were also try-scorers as they went in 26-6 ahead, their only blemish being Tom Burgess switching off to allow Benjamin Garcia to dummy over for a 34th-minute try, which Lucas Albert converted.

Bennett knows such concentration lapses will prove costly against better opponents.

In the second half, McGillvary took his tally to nine tries in nine Tests courtesy of assists from Widdop – who slotted four goals – and Mike McMeeken.

But a full 80-minute performance still eludes England.

England: Widdop, Ratchford, Percival, Bateman, McGillvary, Brown, Gale, Hill, Roby, Graham, Currie, McMeeken, O’Loughlin. Replacements: Walmsley, T. Burgess, Taylor, Williams, Hall, Whitehead, Heighington, Watkins.

France: Kheirallah, Yaha, Ader, Cardace, Bergal, Fages, Albert, Maria, Boudebza, Bousquet, Garcia, Jullien, Baitieri. Replacements: Navarrete, Margalet, Herold, Marginet, Arnaud, Rouch, Djalout, Belmas.