Dave Craven: Omission of Chase may be too late to help England reach final
DID anyone really see that one coming?
Rangi Chase dropped. Not injured, but purposely omitted for the biggest game in England’s recent history.
Admittedly, there had been a clamour for it from various quarters given some ineffectual performances so far from the stand-off who so polarises opinion.
But England coach Steve McNamara has shown consistently that he does not care one jot what other people think.
Therefore, it was hard to see him making this change – Gareth Widdop comes in from the cold presumably to start against New Zealand – because he has bowed to any sort of public pressure.
He must believe this is the best chance of achieving success for his side in their most consequential fixture for five years, if not longer.
However, whatever anybody else says, it is a monumental gamble.
For all Chase has struggled to consistently bring his Castleford box of tricks to the England side, he has shown in patches – against Fiji and Ireland particularly – plenty of fizz and creativity.
Granted, his performance against France in the quarter-final last week was tepid, but the same could be said about many of the national side.
Given the amount of time and faith McNamara has invested in Auckland-born Chase since handing the Maori a controversial debut two years ago, it seems peculiar that the coach will abandon his experiment now.
He has paired him with Kevin Sinfield for the majority of the intervening period and in the meantime allowed the supremely gifted Danny Brough to drift back off to Scotland while also ignoring the claims of talented players such as Danny McGuire and Richie Myler.
Widdop, meanwhile, is clearly a skilled player himself but has only briefly come off the bench in the opening two games and has sat out the last two entirely.
Furthermore, the Melbourne Storm stand-off has hardly featured anywhere since suffering a debilitating dislocated hip for his club back in June yet now he is expected to dictate for England – it will be his first Test start at half-back – in a gargantuan World Cup semi-final against the holders.
Clearly, McNamara must feel he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
While plenty of people are praising him for this bold approach, there is a feeling it may have all come a week too late and it might only paper over some obvious cracks.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but maybe if Chase was going to be jettisoned, it should have been last Saturday, allowing Widdop time to feel his way in against the French and forge some familiarity with Sinfield.
They will have prepped all week together in training and, of course, throughout the tournament, but there is no substitute for actual game time.
If England can get on top of the Kiwi forwards – and with Sam Burgess, James Graham and the increasingly influential Chris Hill, there’s no doubting they can – then Sinfield and Widdop should have a platform to build on.
Widdop’s kicking game is probably superior to that of Chase and, in his brief appearances so far, he showed a real willingness to attack the line.
Yet Chase had started to build real cohesion with Huddersfield Giants duo Brett Ferres and Leroy Cudjoe down the left and – after a disappointing show against France – would surely have been primed to retaliate in a positive fashion against the land of his birth.
He will not get that chance now and, instead, McNamara will put his faith in a 24-year-old from Halifax.
Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s game, that will certainly sit more easily with those who questioned Chase’s heritage.
Unless, that is, it’s all a big bluff and McNamara plans to start Sinfield alongside someone he really knows well: Rob Burrow, his Leeds Rhinos colleague for over a decade.
Widdop and Chase are both class acts but – eight years after making his Great Britain debut – Burrow could yet be the ace England hold up their sleeve.