Watkins eager to help hosts overcome nemesis

KALLUM Watkins was an excited schoolboy sat in the stands the last time New Zealand played a Test series on these shores.

Kallum Watkins bursts through for England against France at Leigh Sports Village
Kallum Watkins bursts through for England against France at Leigh Sports Village

He watched gripped as Great Britain, featuring his future Leeds Rhinos team-mates Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow, Jamie Peacock and Keith Senior, inflicted an emphatic 44-0 second Test rout of the Kiwis at Hull’s KC Stadium in 2007, sealing a first series win in 14 years.

Fast forward eight years and Watkins will be in the England side that tackles New Zealand at the same venue on Sunday.

No one expects the same scoreline – this Kiwis vintage is ranked number one in the world and are Four Nations champions – but the prospect has evoked plenty 
of memories for Leeds’ regal centre.

Kallum Watkins bursts through for England against France at Leigh Sports Village

“I was playing Under 18s that year (2007) with Rhinos so had watched us win the Grand Final and then went over to that one game at Hull,” recalled Watkins, who debuted with Rhinos the following campaign.

“Rob (Burrow) got player of the series, I think, but that was me as a fan and still watching players I’d watched for years, playing as a Great Britain side and beating the Kiwis.

“They are experiences that I wanted to be part of and the opportunity’s come now so I am looking forward to it.

“Going back in the day as a kid, I watched a lot of the Test series against Australia and New Zealand.

“For me, it’s very exciting and I’m looking forward to it; it will be a huge challenge having to play the Kiwis three times in a row.”

Of course, since 2007, with Great Britain splitting into the home countries, the international calendar has only ever read World Cups and Four Nations until now so it is a new prospect for many of the side.

England, even considering yesterday’s setback when it was announced full-back Sam Tomkins would miss the entire series due to a knee injury, are quietly confident of achieving success.

Watkins, fresh from helping Leeds win an historic treble this term, knows a series victory would be significant, especially as England have suffered agonisingly close exits from last year’s Four Nations and the 2013 World Cup at the hands of these opponents.

“It would be huge for the country and the sport in our country,” said the 24-year-old, whose guile and style marks him out as one of the world’s greatest centres.

“We’ve been very, very close these past couple of years now and results-wise both could have gone either way with us or New Zealand.

“So, if we can perform well and do those little things that you have to do right at international level then we give ourselves the best chance of winning.”

Indeed, a relatively inexperienced Leeds side themselves gave the tourists a fright in last Friday’s warm-up game at Headingley.

“They did themselves proud,” added Watkins, the Super League champions having led on the hour mark before falling 34-16.

“That shows the season we have had at the club. The young fellas worked hard throughout the year, and they had opportunities around the back end as we had injuries, so they will get experience and a lot of joy out of that match.

“They tested New Zealand out and got a lot of success but they got tired in the end and New Zealand showed their class.

“There’s always going to be certain thing we can exploit, though; they are a big set, a big side, and we like to think we’re really good on the ball, good at supporting, which helps and you saw that throughout the first half.

“New Zealand were going to be a bit rusty. They were in the same position as us (England) – they had to gel pretty quickly.

“We saw a lot of rustiness but won’t read too much into that ahead of Sunday; the atmosphere and intensity will be a whole different ball game.”

After the exhausting campaign he has had – playing 32 games as Leeds lifted the Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield, too – Watkins could be forgiven if feeling a little jaded ahead of the three internationals to come.

But he insisted: “It is easier for me as I am representing my country.

“This is the ultimate, something you want to do as a young kid from watching or playing yourself.

“It’s something easy for me to get my mind on and prepare myself for that moment. These things don’t come around a lot for many, many players so for me it’s a very special time.

“When it’s all said and done, all over, I’ll have time and will reflect on things (winning the treble) but at the moment my sole focus is on England and beating the Kiwis.”