AS the opening Test against New Zealand draws closer, England second-row Elliott Whitehead fully realises the contest is going to be far tougher than the last time the two nations met.
The former Bradford Bulls star scored twice when England defeated the Kiwis 36-18 in their historic mid-season Test at Denver in June.
Indeed, he has a happy knack of crossing against these opponents having also notched a brace in the series clinching third Test win at Wigan three years ago.
However, Canberra Raiders forward Whitehead expects a much-improved Kiwis side when they meet at Hull’s KCOM Stadium on Saturday especially with dynamic half-back Shaun Johnson available once more.
They stunned world champions Australia 26-24 in Auckland before flying over to the UK, a clear sign that Michael Maguire – the former Wigan Warriors coach who took over after last year’s disastrous World Cup – is beginning to make his mark.
“The Kiwis were in a rebuilding stage going into Denver after that World Cup,” admitted Whitehead, New Zealand having failed to get past the last eight stage.
“They had a new coach and a lot of new players who were making their debuts. Now they’ve got that little bit more experience and a few older boys are back too who’ll bring a lot of experience.
“Everyone knows about Shaun Johnson and what he’s capable of doing but they’ve brought Jesse Bromwich in who’ll get them going down the middle. It’s going to be a lot tougher than in Denver and we’re expecting that as well.”
Having played in last year’s World Cup final defeat to Australia, Whitehead is desperate to see England home at last in the 2021 affair especially after Johnson’s famous last-play defeated them in the 2013 semi-final at Wembley.
“We’re looking to the next World Cup and we’re going to keep on building,” added the 29-year-old, who has forged a reputation as one of the world’s finest forwards since moving to the NRL three years ago.
“There’s no point taking a backward step and waiting until next year; we want to start now and the new faces have done really well.
“The England Knights boys who came in (against France last week) did well, too, and maybe they can push to the main squad.”
Whitehead remains unsure whether he will return to Super League – he started at home-town Bradford and spent three years with Catalans Dragons before moving to Canberra – but is adamant he will head home once his career is over.
The likes of the Burgess brothers, who also all began at Bradford, have said they will likely settle in Australia when retired.
Whitehead said: “I’m only 29 and I’ve two years left plus an option for a third in my favour.
“I’ll see how my body’s going and then decide to stay out there or come back. Long-term, though, I’m going to come back to Bradford; I love Bradford and I’ll always come home.”
Bradford initially released him when he was 18 and he started training to become an electrician before the club invited him back.
He said: “It’s been good to see some old faces these last few weeks and just to be back in England.
“I didn’t come home last year; I stayed over there for Christmas but it was too warm for me. I’m all about a cold Christmas and I’m used to being stuck in a pub at that time of year, not the beach!”
Whitehead will be joined by a fellow Bradfordian at Canberra in 2019 with England back-row John Bateman, his former Bulls colleague who was shortlisted for Man of Steel this year, making the move from Wigan.
Wigan prop Ryan Sutton also joins the NRL club where England’s ex-Hull KR hooker Josh Hodgson also already features. Whitehead added: “There’ll be four of us there and, hopefully, a few more come out in the coming years.
“Hopefully, they’ll settle in as well as Josh and I did and be a success. I think he (Bateman) will do really well in the NRL; he’s one of those kids who makes sure he competes week in, week out.
“I don’t know what (coach) Ricky Stuart is thinking as there’s three of us now who play back-row so whether he’s going to move one to loose I’m not sure.”
England coach Wayne Bennett has surprisngly left Stefan Ratchford out of his 19-man squad for the first Test.
Wakefield Trinity duo Reece Lyne and Tom Johnstone, Castleford Tigers Adam Milner and Wigan’s Joe Greenwood also miss the cut but Leeds Rhinos’ Richie Myler and Wigan’s Sam Tomkins are in the frame.
England 19-man squad: Bateman, G Burgess, T Burgess, Clark, Connor, Gildart, Graham, Hill, Hodgson, Lomax, Makinson, McGillvary, Myler, O’Loughlin, Percival, Thompson, Tomkins, Whitehead, Williams.