A SERIES of team changes and some eyebrow-raising positional selections have left former Leeds and Great Britain great Keith Senior feeling “twitchy” about England’s prospects of World Cup advancement.
England will be expected to progress to the quarter-finals and a likely meeting with Papua New Guinea by beating France in Perth, Western Australia, on Sunday, but Senior has reservations about coach Wayne Bennett’s approach.
Bennett has made four personnel changes following last weekend’s win over Lebanon, with Castleford Tigers forward Mike McMeeken and prop Scott Taylor, of Hull, set to make their first appearance of the World Cup, alongside St Helens centre Mark Percival and Warrington Wolves stand-off Kevin Brown.
Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins, Elliott Whitehead and Chris Heighington are all rested, Gareth Widdop has been switched from stand-off to full-back and Stefan Ratchford will play out of position as one of the wingers.
Senior, who played 33 times for Great Britain and featured in two World Cups with England, feels it is a risky approach as sudden-death rugby looms in the next phase of the tournament.
“They have gone quite well, but I am getting a bit twitchy about the way he is changing the side about a bit,” Senior said of Bennett and England, who lost to Australia in their opening match.
“Last week wasn’t a great performance. It was against a team who weren’t that great themselves, but that’s the sort of team they should be blowing away.
“They did reasonably well against Australia; Australia dominated the first half, but England raised the tempo after half-time and showed a lot of positives.
“That is one of the disappointing things, they didn’t kick on from there last week.”
Castleford’s Man of Steel Luke Gale has retained his place at scrum-half, but Senior believes he has yet to prove he can dominate at Test level the way he does in Super League.
“I don’t think the half-backs are working,” observed the ex-Leeds centre who is now assistant coach at Sheffield Eagles. “Gareth Widdop and Luke Gale are trying to outshine each other.
“Against Australia Luke Gale did nothing, Gareth Widdop took control. Get George Williams in there playing his attacking game and let Gareth Widdop run the show.”
Huddersfield’s Jermaine McGillvary – one of only two wingers in the touring squad, alongside Hall – is facing a disciplinary hearing today that could lead to a long ban if he is found guilty of biting in the win over Lebanon.
Though McGillvary has been named in the team for Sunday, Senior reckons it makes sense for Bennett to try another option, Ratchford, against France. He also feels Watkins’s form last week was a positive and believes England’s pack are capable of matching any team in the tournament, but is concerned this week’s changes could disrupt the team’s cohesion.
England should be good enough to beat France, whatever team Bennett fields, but Senior warned they need to do it in style to take pressure off the coach and players ahead of the following week’s probable quarter-final.
“It should be a 50-point game, they should be dominating against France like Australia did,” Senior said. “People are saying it’s a World Cup and it’s all about winning; that’s right, but England need to put in a good, solid performance for confidence.
“It is a game they should win and win easily, but if they don’t there’s going to be a lot of criticism and their backs are going to be against the wall. It would be nice to get a great performance and some positive press and the lads can kick on from that.”
The appointment of Bennett, the Brisbane Broncos coach, has divided opinion in the sport and Senior is among the sceptics.
He said: “I don’t think it’s the greatest to have an Australian coach, based in Australia, coaching England. He won’t get a full feel for Super League. When you are England coach you have to be coaching in Super League so you can see the players week-in and week-out and you can be more hands-on and involved more.”
Utility back Craig Hall has become the latest high-profile player to join Leigh’s quest for an immediate return to Super League.
The 29-year-old, formerly of Hull, Hull KR and Wakefield, has signed a two-year deal after leaving Toronto Wolfpack due to family reasons.