Rugby League World Cup: Alex Walmsley backed to impress Down Under

Alex Walmsley: Ready to make World Cup debut.
Alex Walmsley: Ready to make World Cup debut.
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As he prepares to make his belated England debut, St Helens prop Alex Walmsley has been told he would “thrive” in the NRL.

The 27-year-old former Batley forward is thought to be in big demand by Australian clubs who will be casting a close eye on his performance against Lebanon in the World Cup at Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday.

Newcastle, Parramatta, Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra reportedly lead the race to sign Walmsley, who would have won his first England cap against Australia in Melbourne but for illness.

Chris Heighington, who will move from Cronulla to Newcastle next season, has been impressed by his new England team-mate’s 2017 season and also the impact he has made in training.

Asked if Walmsley would succeed in the NRL, Heighington said: “One hundred per cent. He’s big, fast and has got good ball skills.

“He’d really thrive in the NRL, to be honest. He’s doing a great job in Super League and building some confidence being around the older players. He’d really suit the NRL.

“I get to watch a few of the Super League games and he’s been unreal for them. He’s been really good at training here as well. Unfortunately, he came down with a virus, but he’s good to go this week.”

The introduction of Walmsley in place of the injured Sam Burgess is the only change to the side that lost 18-4 to the Kangaroos.

Warrington second-row Ben Currie, who was a late addition to the side for Friday’s opening game, not only keeps his place in the match-day squad, but will make his first start for his country, with Walmsley on the bench.

England coach Wayne Bennett said: “Alex was in the match-day squad last week and he was unlucky not to make the field. He’s feeling good again and I want to see what he can offer against Lebanon.”

It will be England’s first international against Lebanon, who are coached by former Australia international and New South Wales stand-off Brad Fittler.

The Cedars won their first World Cup match, beating France 29-18 in Canberra, where half-back Mitchell Moses capped a fine performance with 13 points, much to the admiration of Heighington, a close friend of Lebanon captain Robbie Farah.

“I played 11 years and just over 200 games with Robbie,” said Heighington, who was one of eight England players at a community event at Clovelly yesterday. “We came through the system at the same time. We’re a similar age and I’m still really good mates with him.

“It’s good to see him going so well and really pushing Lebanon rugby league. I watched their game against France and they played pretty well.

“They’ve got some players with good NRL experience, players like Farah, (Mitch) Moses and Timmy Mannah up front, and Michael Lichaa, who really went well at nine when he came off the bench.

“We’re in for another hard game. It’s a Test match for England and we’ve got to prepare like we’re playing the Aussies again.

“Training has been intense, pretty tough, to be honest, we’re taking the mindset that it’s against one of the top teams.”

New Zealand will rest several players and give a debut to Manly prop Addin Fonua-Blake against Scotland in Christchurch on Saturday.

Wigan hooker or half-back Thomas Leuluai, who won his 39th cap in the Kiwis’ 38-8 win over Samoa, will sit out the Group B game, along with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Simon Mannering and Jordan Rapana, while centre Gerard Beale has been ruled out of the tournament after breaking his leg last Saturday.

Shaun Johnson will have a new half-back partner in Te Maire Martin while Jason Nightingale, Peta Hiku and Dean Whare all get starts in a reshaped back line, and Fonua-Blake is set to earn his first cap off the bench.

Among seven changes made by coach David Kidwell ahead of the showdown with Tonga, Elijah Taylor will start at hooker.

New Zealand Warriors reserve grader James Bell, who has made two NRL first grade appearances, will start for Scotland at loose-forward after making his debut off the bench in last Sunday’s 50-4 defeat by Tonga.

Alex Walker comes in at full-back with Lewis Tierney switching to centre in place of Will Oakes. Danny Addy moves from scrum-half to hooker with Oscar Thomas in the No 7 jersey.

New Zealand will be aiming for revenge after being held to an 18-18 draw with Scotland in their last meeting in November.

Super League referees will be in charge of both World Cup Group A games this weekend.

Ben Thaler has been appointed to control England’s match against Lebanon while Grand Final referee Robert Hicks has been given Friday’s game between Australia and France in Canberra, where James Child will be the video referee.

Chris Kendall will take charge of his first Test when Fiji play Wales in Townsville on Sunday.