Former Great Britain coach Brian Noble believes England are in good shape going into the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Wayne Bennett’s men have yet to set the tournament alight, following up a battling defeat by Australia with routine victories over Lebanon and France, but former Bradford Bulls chief Noble has been impressed by the way they have gone about their business.
And the 56-year-old feels Bennett has got the combinations right ahead of Sunday’s quarter-final against Papua New Guinea at Melbourne’s Rectangular Stadium.
“I think if you can stitch together component parts of what we’ve seen in the first three games, you’d be quite happy,” said Noble, who has followed the England team around Australia as part of the BBC commentary team.
“The perennial question is ‘can we compete for 80 minutes, can we kick the ball properly at the right times and are we ready for the knockout part of the tournament?’ I think we’re getting there.
“Certainly for the first 25 minutes of last Sunday’s game against France they looked very slick and impressive. I think there is enough to suggest that Gareth Widdop at full-back and the half-backs of Luke Gale and Kevin Brown, with maybe James Roby at nine and Sean O’Loughlin at 13, gives the engine quite a considerable rudder.
“Sam Burgess will come back into the mix and the other guys coming back will give them some energy.
“The positive thing is we’re seeing glimpses of what there might be if they put it all together and I think that could be quite considerable.”
Tonga’s surprise win over New Zealand in Hamilton last Saturday, which Noble says provided a “watershed moment” for the game, has in theory opened up a less arduous route to the final for England. “Tonga winning means there’s no semi-final against New Zealand who I think are still a very good team,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll beat Papua New Guinea and then there will be a big clash in Auckland against Tonga.
“Have England got enough in the tank? I definitely think so. I think the group is really tight, Wayne does that, he creates a good group. And I think the belief is there. I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Meanwhile, despite several lop-sided results in the group stages, Noble believes the World Cup is proving to be a success
“There were some mis-matches, that’s the same in every World Cup, football, rugby union or anything,” he said. “The group stages are there to give opportunities to teams that wouldn’t normally experience that sort of adventure.
“Clearly there were three nations that were considered to be the best and now we’ve got a fourth in Tonga, which has been really well received. I think it’s a watershed moment for the sport that Tonga, Samoa and Fiji are not having their best players picked off by Australia and New Zealand.
“We’re on the verge of an international game with four, five, six or seven teams. I think it has been a success. Everywhere I’ve been it’s been well received and I think it will only get better from here on in.”
Papua New Guinea captain David Mead knows all too well what his side will be up against when they take on England for a place in the World Cup semi-finals.
The 29-year-old Kumuls full-back plays under England boss Wayne Bennett at Brisbane Broncos and is acutely aware of what the veteran coach will bring to their opponents.
“I guess leadership is probably the key word,” Mead said.
“I know that Wayne is good at getting the boys fired up to play a game so there’s no doubt England are really going to be fired up for this game.
“To be honest, I’m just excited to be playing in the quarter-finals against a top side.
“They’ve obviously been a top side for a very long time so I’m looking forward to going out there on Sunday and putting in a good performance.
“I believe we can win,” stressed Mead.
I know all the boys believe it, all the staff believe it and a lot of Papua New Guineans believe it.”