UNCAPPED Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone is the only new name in Wayne Bennett’s England elite performance squad - but there is a raft of exciting fresh talent included in Paul Anderson’s England Knights group.
Ahead of this year’s mid-season Test and Autumn International Test Series against New Zealand, Bennett has selected a 21-man EPS that will regularly meet throughout the season.
As well as prolific winger Johnstone – the 2016 Super League Young Player of the Year – there is a return to the squad for Leeds Rhinos second-row Stevie Ward, Warrington Wolves hooker Daryl Clark and St Helens winger Tommy Makinson.
Johnstone’s team-mate Reece Lyne, the ex-Hull centre, is included in Anderson’s 25-man Knights Performance Squad (KPS) – the England Knights have been revived for the first time since 2013 – along with plenty more of Super League’s emerging talent.
Leeds Rhinos’ teenage full-back Jack Walker and centre Liam Sutcliffe along with Castleford Tigers duo Greg Minikin and Jake Trueman get call-ups as do five Hull players – Jake Connor, Jamie Shaul, Josh Bowden, Dean Hadley and Masi Matongo.
Furthermore, Hull KR half-back Chris Atkin, who last season was playing for Swinton Lions, is included and Huddersfield Giants’ exciting hooker Kruise Leeming earns a nod, too.
Indeed, all 11 English-based Super League clubs are represented in the Knights squad as well as London Broncos whose ex-Hull hooker James Cunningham is given a shot.
Bennett, said: “The Elite Performance Squad sessions in 2017 proved invaluable for the players in the build-up to the World Cup and it’s important that we do all we can to enable them to spend quality time together in an international environment. The 21-man EPS includes a mixture of experienced international players from the 2017 World Cup Squad, returning players and a new inclusion with Tom Johnstone.
“It’s important for us to focus on the Test matches this year but also keep in mind the 2021 World Cup too and the return of the England Knights Performance Squad ensures that we give players valuable time in an international set up. It is a very positive step for England Rugby League and all 46 players across both squads have the opportunity to impress my coaching staff in the coming months.”
“The mid-season test in Denver is a great opportunity to test ourselves against strong opposition and whilst those selected for both performance squads have put themselves in a good place to be considered for selection, we are always looking at all players in both the Super League and NRL and the door is never shut on any player who impresses.”
The Knights last played in 2013 but return as part of the newly-formed England Performance Unit (EPU) led by Rugby Director, Kevin Sinfield, that aims to develop more world-class England players for all senior squads for the 2021 and 2025 Rugby League World Cups.
Anderson said: “The return of England Knights is hugely beneficial for the future of England Rugby League and developing players to a high standard for International Series and the 2021 and 2025 Rugby League World Cups.
“The sessions proved valuable for the Elite squad in 2017 and involving the Knights Performance Squad can only improve England’s chances in future international tournaments.”
Two sessions in the first phase for the EPS and KPS will build up to the mid-season Test against New Zealand starting with a joint meeting between both squads with staff from the England Performance Unit and current England senior staff.
The squads will then split in to two separate groups for the next session. A senior squad for the Test game against New Zealand on June 23 in Denver, Colorado will be announced in June.
No International fixtures for England Knights have yet to be confirmed for 2018, but discussions are ongoing and fixtures will be announced in due course.
The full squads are:
England Rugby League Elite Performance squad: Luke Gale (Castleford Tigers), Mike McMeeken (Castleford Tigers), Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield Giants), Scott Taylor (Hull FC), Ryan Hall (Leeds Rhinos), Stevie Ward (Leeds Rhinos), Kallum Watkins (Leeds Rhinos), Jonny Lomax (St Helens), Tommy Makinson (St Helens), Mark Percival (St Helens), James Roby (St Helens), Alex Walmsley (St Helens), Tom Johnstone (Wakefield Trinity), Kevin Brown (Warrington Wolves), Daryl Clark (Warrington Wolves), Ben Currie (Warrington Wolves), Chris Hill (Warrington Wolves), Stefan Ratchford (Warrington Wolves), John Bateman (Wigan Warriors), Sean O’Loughlin (Wigan Warriors), George Williams (Wigan Warriors).
England Knights Performance squad: Greg Minikin (Castleford Tigers), Jake Trueman (Castleford Tigers), Kruise Leeming (Huddersfield Giants), Josh Bowden (Hull FC), Jake Connor (Hull FC), Dean Hadley (Hull FC), Masimbaashe Matongo (Hull FC), Jamie Shaul (Hull FC), Chris Atkin (Hull KR), Liam Sutcliffe (Leeds Rhinos), Jack Walker (Leeds Rhinos), James Cunningham (London Broncos), Niall Evalds (Salford Red Devils), Danny Richardson (St Helens), Luke Thompson (St Helens), Reece Lyne (Wakefield Trinity), Jack Hughes (Warrington Wolves), Tom Gilmore (Widnes Vikings), Danny Walker (Widnes Vikings). Matt Whitley (Widnes Vikings), Joe Burgess (Wigan Warriors), Tom Davies (Wigan Warriors), Oliver Gildart (Wigan Warriors), Sam Powell (Wigan Warriors), Ryan Sutton (Wigan Warriors).