AS the World Cup draws ever closer, England coach Steve McNamara was left mulling over plenty of encouraging signs last night as his squad professionally saw off the challenge of Super League’s finest imports in the International Origin.
Racing into a 24-0 interval lead against the Exiles, everything looked positive and maybe even a little too easy as they sought the extensive work-out required to start honing them for the tournament this autumn.
But when captain Kevin Sinfield, who had been so key to their vibrant showing, failed to reappear for the second period nursing a thumb problem which could add further to Leeds Rhinos’ injury issues, they clearly missed his composure and organisational quality.
They struggled for the same cohesion and it was no surprise the Exiles – with nothing to lose – grew into the game.
They duly responded with tries from Hull KR prop Mickey Paea and Warrington winger Joel Monaghan while England suffered another setback when Hull FC captain Gareth Ellis had to be gingerly helped off with a back injury late on.
He had only just returned to the field in an attempt to add steel to that creaking defence, but he was left in agony after being smashed in the back by Steve Menzies.
The Australian veteran may be 39, but he can still hit with all his old ferocious power.
Hull, who have prospered so much since Ellis’s last return from injury, will be concerned, just like Leeds.
Huddersfield Giants centre Leroy Cudjoe did his hopes of being selected for the World Cup opener against Australia on October 26 no harm at all with a two-try effort while club colleague Brett Ferres made his debut off the bench.
Perhaps knowing this is his side’s one and only true test before the tournament starts, McNamara was not afraid to try plenty of experiments within the course of the 80 minutes.
However, it did not affect the balance of his side’s performance in the first period; if anything it raised the bar.
We saw second-row Ben Westwood unusually come on as a first interchange at prop and handle the role effectively while – when James Roby went for a break after 20 minutes – stand-off Sinfield proved more than useful at hooker.
It looked like a move primarily to facilitate Rangi Chase’s introduction off the bench and perhaps see how the maverick Castleford Tigers man could operate alongside Richie Myler, the Warrington Wolves scrum-half who had pipped him to a starting role.
However, it actually brought the best out of Sinfield who took firm control of affairs from dummy half – a role he had last undertaken at this level under Tony Smith in 2009, and allied a couple of sniping runs with some smart distribution.
Most of the damage was metered out during a prolific spell initiated midway through the first half as England grabbed three tries in just eight minutes.
Leeds’s Zak Hardaker got the first as he latched onto Sam Tomkins’s dinked grubber after Roby had broken clear off Chris Hill’s fortuitous offload on halfway.
Next it was Roby, the former Man of Steel not long back from a three-month injury, who raced in from 80m, the attacking Exiles captain Brett Hodgson having spilled under pressure from his ex-Huddersfield team-mate Cudjoe and Sinfield adding the swift assist to unleash the St Helens hooker. Myler was the instigator of England’s classy third score, his delayed pass putting Ellis through before he looped around to receive a return pass and quickly send Cudjoe haring away.
With support either side, Cudjoe duly showed the sort of confidence McNamara has instilled in this group by ignoring both and dummying past Hodgson to cross.
The Exiles had barely had a sniff but Travis Burns’s grubber should have furnished cumbersome Sia Soliola with a try.
He was not agile enough, though, to collect and, after that let-off, Sinfield ruthlessly exposed Paea, who slipped in midfield, to dart clear and provide Tomkins with his 17th try in just 16 England games.
Sinfield converted them all to leave the hosts in command.
But they suffered somewhat in that second period. England will have been disappointed with their efforts when Paea was allowed to charge through both Westwood and Hardaker to give the Anzac collaboration some credit in the 54th minute, Pat Richards converting.
Their decision-making in defence cost them soon after, Chase darting out and missing the tackle to allow Joel Monaghan a further score wide out, but they did finish on a high as Cudjoe intercepted for his second try, Josh Charnley converting.
Talk of eventually establishing this game as some sort of State of Origin replica, meanwhile, was hopeful at best when the Exiles concept was first introduced at the end of 2010.
By reverting to a one-off game like last night, just 12 months after extending it to a two-game series, shows the appetite has already waned, as did the paltry crowd of just 7,926.
England: Tomkins; Charnley, Cudjoe, Hardaker, Hall; Sinfield, Myler; Hill, Roby, Mossop, Ellis, Farrell, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: Chase, Crabtree, Westwood, Ferres.
Exiles: Hodgson; Monaghan, Menzies, Moon, Richards; Burns. Dobson; Puletua, L’Estrange, Leuluai, Waterhouse, Soliola, Hansen. Substitutes: Hohaia, Bailey, Paea, Taia.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield)