World Cup: England doubt over captain as phoney war starts

Fitness race: Englands Sean OLoughlin faces a battle to reach Saturdays World Cup final. (Picture: SWpix)

England forward Chris Hill says captain Sean O’Loughlin is on the mend ahead of Saturday’s World Cup final but insists he is not irreplaceable.

O’Loughlin was considered doubtful by head coach Wayne Bennett after picking up a quad injury during England’s 20-18 semi-final win over Tonga last Saturday but has been named in the team to face Australia at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

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“He’s doing everything possible to get fit,” said Hill. “I saw him this morning and he’s moving a lot better. We’ve got a couple of days yet so we’ll wait and see.

“If he doesn’t play, obviously it’s a loss but that’s why we’ve brought a squad, someone else will step in.”

Bennett has recalled veteran forward Chris Heighington in the only change to his semi-final line-up. The 34-year-old Cronulla second rower has been handed the vacant bench spot, with James Roby starting at hooker in place of the injured Josh Hodgson.

Roby, who won his 30th cap at Mount Smart Stadium, is the only other specialist hooker in the 24-man squad but Hill is confident the St Helens N0 9 will be able to play most, if not all, of Saturday’s game.

“Nothing changes,” the Warrington captain said at a fans event in the centre of Brisbane. “Robes can do 80 minutes, he’s done it for 15 years in Super League and he’s done it internationally. He’s more than capable.”

After reaching the final for the first time for 22 years, Bennett’s national side now have the opportunity to carve themselves a slice of history as they seek to pull off the first World Cup triumph since Great Britain lifted the trophy in 1972.

Hill, who has started all five games so far, says the England players are aware of the huge spoils that await them as well as the size of their task.

“It would be a massive boost,” said Hill. “A lot of lads here have made a lot of sacrifices over these last seven weeks.

“We’ll do it for our group and hopefully it has a massive roll-on effect for the English game.

“Everyone is buzzing. I think we’ve improved massively under Wayne.

“Australia are favourites for a reason, they’re on home soil and they’ve won it so many times, but let’s concentrate on ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Hill says he has no problems with the final being refereed by an Australian after Gerard Sutton was awarded the game. “He’ll do his job, whether he’s English, French or from Australia or New Zealand, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Let him get on with his job.”

England’s Chris Kendall will be a touchjudge and fellow Super League official Ben Thaler has been appointed as video referee.

Meanwhile, Brisbane forward Matt Gillett has accused his club coach Bennett of kidology in the build-up to the World Cup final.

Bennett caused a stir by suggesting his England team “probably” had no chance of beating Australia in Saturday’s decider at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, but Gillett knows better than most not to take seriously what the veteran Australian tells the media.

“He said that but I am sure everyone realises that he doesn’t mean it,” said the long-serving Broncos second rower. “In-house they will be fully confident of coming here and taking the win.

“He has been around a long time and knows footy pretty well. He says those things and makes a headline of it.”

“But for us we are not reading too much into stuff like that. We are coming up against a big England side that are playing some good footy. It is going to be a big task.”

Bennett also surprised journalists at the post-match press conference last Saturday when he maintained he was not nervous as Tonga staged their dramatic late fightback that almost took the game away from England, but Gillett, who has spent the last three seasons under Bennett at the Broncos, says the 67-year-old is unflappable whatever the circumstances. “He keeps relaxed and calm,” said Gillett.

“Footy does not always go to plan or your way out there, but win, lose or draw he is always pretty calm.

“He doesn’t scream or swear and carry on.

He tells it how it is and keeps the same tone of voice. He is easy to be coached by.

“You understand a lot more that way without all the yelling and stuff like that.”

England: G Widdop (St George Illawarra); J McGillvary (Huddersfield), K Watkins (Leeds), J Bateman (Wigan), R Hall (Leeds); K Brown (Warrington), L Gale (Castleford); C Hill (Warrington), J Roby (St Helens), J Graham (Canterbury Bulldogs), S Burgess (South Sydney), E Whitehead (Canberra), S O’Loughlin (Wigan, capt). Interchanges: A Walmsley (St Helens), B Currie (Warrington), T Burgess (South Sydney), C Heighington (Cronulla).

Australia: B Slater; D Gagai, W Chambers, J Dugan, V Holmes; M Morgan, C Cronk; A Woods, C Smith (capt), D Klemmer, B Cordner, M Gillett, J McGuire. Interchanges: W Graham, J McLean, R Campbell-Gillard, T Frizell.