IT SAYS something about the calibre of prop available to Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett that Liam Watts – shortlisted for Man of Steel and a Dream Team member this season – can only make his stand-by squad.
The uncapped Castleford Tigers front-row has enjoyed an immense campaign, playing the best rugby league of his career so far as he approaches his 30th birthday.
He will gain some deserved international recognition, at least, as he has been picked for the England side that flies out to Sydney on Saturday for the inaugural World Cup Nines.
And there is still a chance he could yet be promoted into the Lions squad that starts its tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea against Tonga in Hamilton on October 26.
Watts is one of four players in that stand-by group but the only forward and, since that was announced, news broke of South Sydney captain Sam Burgess’ withdrawal due to injury.
Bennett and his six-man selection panel will confirm their 24-man Lions squad on Sunday after Saturday’s Super League Grand Final between runaway leaders St Helens and surprise-package Salford Red Devils.
To force your way into that Dream Team is difficult because how many front-rowers are playing well in the actual comp?Liam Watts
Saints’ current England props Alex Walmsley and Luke Thompson are almost certain to be included, as is James Graham, the 34-year-old also named as England Nines captain.
With experienced Warrington Wolves captain Chris Hill and South Sydney’s Tom Burgess having also served Bennett well, it becomes clearer why Watts is still waiting for that chance.
“I am disappointed but it’s only going to give me more determination and motivation to try to force my way into that squad,” he said.
“If anyone goes down with injury I’m ready and waiting and hopefully I’ll get the chance.”
Remarkably, this is the first season Watts, who won back-to-back Challenge Cups with Hull FC before hometown Castleford bought him 18 months ago, has made the Dream Team.
He said: “It’s been the same for God knows how long. There’s always been at least two or three props played outstandingly.
“To force your way into that Dream Team is difficult because how many front-rowers are playing well in the actual comp?
“It is really tough but it’s just about consistency and hard work.
“It was a big year for me moving back to Cas; I knew I had to have a good pre-season, I gave it my all and it did set me up for a good year.”
Obviously, aside from that competition in Super League, four England props are playing in the NRL, too, with Sam, Tom and George Burgess all at South Sydney and Graham leading the charge for St George-Illawarra.
Furthermore, Wigan Warriors’ uncapped Ryan Sutton moved to Canberra Raiders this season and is now in the England Nines squad alongside Watts.
“There’s always competition and it’s how you evolve and keep getting better to keep competition at bay,” he added.
“There’s a few players that went over there and played well. They are good front-rowers. But it’s just an aim of mine to keep getting better each week, keep sticking my hand up and playing my best footy.”
At various points throughout his career, which started out at Hull KR, Watts has had opportunities to move to Australia but has always opted to remain in Super League. With England chief Bennett also in charge of Souths, is there a feeling the Yorkshireman might improve his chances if he is more visible in the NRL?
“You can say that but then again if you’re playing well you should get picked regardless of where you’re playing,” insisted Watts.
“We all train together and have a good connection. I’m looking forward to getting over there and rubbing shoulders with the rest of the lads, the Australia-based players. I know most of them which is a good thing and moving forward it can only help.”
Meanwhile, given his athleticism, ability to play long minutes and, not least, his ball-handling quality, Watts – one of four players who missed out to Salford half-back Jackson Hastings for Man of Steel on Sunday night – is an ideal prop to play Nines.
“I play a bit like a stand-off anyway so it doesn’t really make a difference to me!” he joked, when asked about the prospect of a prop covering all that extra space.
“I’m sure it will be testing. I played in one at Headingley a few years back for KR so I know what it entails.
“There’s a lot of running around and a lot of tackling and it’s very quick so it will be interesting to see how I go in that.”