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World-beaters in pack, but halfback depth a huge problem


England are slept on as a World Cup contender. They have a relatively soft draw – all going well, at least – plus the advantages of a home crowd and a host of players who know each other well.

They face Samoa in the tournament opener in Newcastle, where they will be roared on by 50,000 partisan fans, and will likely have had more warm-up action than their opponents.

If they win that, you can plot a pathway that takes them all the way to the semi-finals before they face another highly-ranked team, and crucially would avoid them having to play Australia or New Zealand until the Old Trafford decision. Lose, however, and things get very interesting very quickly.

The coach, Shaun Wane, is a canny, experienced operator in the Super League, with three titles to his name at Wigan. His style is very forward-first, defensively strong and intent on making life difficult for the opposition.

The team he can pick will help a lot in this regard: their forward pack will have a lot of NRL experience and will likely feature three middle rotations off the bench, while he can rely on experienced operators like Jonny Lomax, by far the best halfback in Super League, George Williams and fullback Sam Tomkins who will have both guile and control in the spine.

Beyond that, however, there are major issues. Having lost Gareth Widdop and Saints young gun Lewis Dodd to season-ending injuries, the depth in the halves is nonexistent. If either Williams or Lomax go down, there isn’t much of a Plan B.

Sam Tomkins

Sam Tomkins is key for Catalans Dragons. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Certainties

There are plenty of walk-ups: from the NRL, you’ll see Elliott Whitehead, Ryan Sutton, Tom Burgess and recently declared Victor Radley. Ex-NRLers who will also certainly appear will be John Bateman and the aforementioned Tomkins and Williams.

Alongside Lomax from St Helens will be Alex Walmsley, Jack Welsby, Mark Percival and Tommy Makinson. Watch out for Walmsley, in particular: he’s a genuine world-level prop who would have almost certainly played NRL had he not come into Super League at a relatively late age.

Welsby is nailed for the bench 14 role: he’s only 21, but has already played 80 games of first grade, featured in every position from 1-6 and played into two Grand Finals, scoring the winning try after the siren in one of them. He’s a gun.

It’s hard to see a world where Liam Farrell doesn’t at least make the squad. He’s one of the most dependable players in the Super League and Wane loves him.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Probables 

Luke Thompson hasn’t featured for the Bulldogs in the run in after concussions and a trip home for personal reasons but will play if at all fit, as will Herbie Farnworth, if he gets back on the field after a bicep injury.

Former Dragon Mike Cooper was at underperforming Warrington but switched to Wigan recently and is highly likely to be picked as a forward squad option.

The hooker options include Paul McShane and Michael McIlorum. Micky Mac, now at Catalans Dragons, has played for Ireland in the past but, if asked, he won’t turn down England. Both were picked for the mid-season game and are front-runners.

McIlorum was a stalwart at Wane’s Wigan and is probably the most aggressive hooker in the world, though he has curbed his willingness to get into punch-ups as he has aged. Expect him to tackle, dish and noise up opponents.

It would be a surprise if either of centre Harry Newman or Polish-born prop Mikolaj Oledzki, both of Leeds Rhinos, were omitted at this stage.

Catalans back-rower Mike McMeeken faces a race against time but, if fit, is likely to be included. Tom Davies, also based in France with the Dragons, is a likely wing option.

Kallum Watkins of the Titans

Kallum Watkins. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Possibles

Ex-Titans centre Kallum Watkins featured in the mid-season game and has been around the set-up for years, as has former Rooster Ryan Hall. If experience and size are valued – and with Wane, that seems likely – then they could well make it.

The big if is James Roby: the veteran hooker is retired from international duty but Wane would dearly love to have him back. Without him, the hooking role is a huge unknown: McShane will be there, Daryl Clark might be and Leeds’ Kruise Leeming could make a dart at it too, though his defence might hold him back.

Jake Connor, probably the most naturally talented playmaker England have, is highly out of favour and could have covered 1, 6 and 7. Picking him would be a wildcard at this stage even given the lack of options in the halves.

Beyond Connor, the best bet for a squad halfback might be Wigan’s Harry Smith, but in truth, it’s more likely that Wane would shift Tomkins to 6 and pick a different fullback, or use Leeming as cover for 7, 9 and 14.

The World Cup might come too soon for young guns Will Pryce – son of Super League legend Leon – and Kai Pearce-Paul, though expect both to come to an NRL near you sooner rather than later.

Pryce would be a brave option for 1 and 6, but he was hamstrung by a ten-match ban earlier in the year and it’s more likely that he’ll turn out for Jamaica instead.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Herbie Farnworth of the Broncos breaks away to score a try during the round two NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium, on March 20, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Predicted England squad

1 Sam Tomkins
2 Tommy Makinson
3 Herbie Farnworth
4 Mark Percival
5 Ryan Hall
6 Jonny Lomax
7 George Williams
8 Alex Walmsley
9 Micky McIlorum
10 Luke Thompson
11 Elliott Whitehead
12 John Bateman
13 Victor Radley
14 Jack Welsby
15 Tom Burgess
16 Ryan Sutton
17 Liam Farrell
18 Morgan Knowles
19 Paul McShane
20 Harry Newman
21 Mike Cooper
22 Kruise Leeming
23 Mikolaj Oledzki
24 Tom Davies





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