As the dust settles on another Super League season, attention quickly turns to this year’s Rugby League World Cup. After Wayne Bennett’s 24-man squad announcement kick-started plenty of debate among rugby league fans, we take a look at the potential 17 that could take to the field against Australia, on Friday 27 October.
Full-back: Stefan Ratchford
The battle for the number one shirt appears to be a straight shootout between St. Helens’ Jonny Lomax and Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford. Whilst Lomax has enjoyed a more memorable season at Saints, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how good a player Ratchford is who has only been able to show glimpses of his best in a struggling Warrington side. Head coach Wayne Bennet selected Ratchford at full-back for the mid-season test against Samoa, ahead of the in-form Zak Hardaker who was accommodated in the centres, and I think we can expect Ratchord to take the No.1 spot again against the Aussies.
Wing: Jermaine McGillvary
Whilst his Huddersfield Giants side have struggled at times over the past couple of seasons, Jermaine McGillvary has become a regular on the wing for the England team. 2017 was the third consecutive year that McGillvary has been both the Giants’ top try scorer and top metre-maker. His ability to help out the England pack in gaining the tough yards as well as his try scoring prowess makes him a shoe in on the wing.
Centre: Kallum Watkins
England’s right side has developed a familiar look to it with McGillvary being partnered by Kallum Watkins for all three games of last year’s Four Nations, as well as this season’s Test Match against Samoa. The pair have developed a strong partnership on England’s right edge and with Watkins enjoying another solid season which culminated in him adding another Grand Final winners’ ring to his collection, we can expect to see them link up again for the World Cup.
Centre: Mark Percival
The other centre spot is likely to go to Saints’ Mark Percival whose strong season saw him named in the Super League Dream Team. Percival was named in the mid-season squad for the game against Samoa but found himself missing out with Zak Hardarker being preferred at left centre. With Hardaker now unavailable and Bennett only naming two recognised centres, Percival would appear to be the man chosen to partner up with Ryan Hall on England’s left.
Wing: Ryan Hall
With Wayne Bennett choosing to name only two wingers in his 24-man squad, we can expect to see experienced international Ryan Hall take the other wing spot. Similar to McGillvary on the opposite wing, Hall’s size and power are valuable assets for when England are tasked with bringing the ball out of their own red zone and is probably what puts these two ahead of the likes of Greg Eden and Tommy Makinson, who were unfortunate not to make the squad.
Stand-off: Gareth Widdop
Despite being captain and a key player for the St George Illawarra Dragons in the NRL, Gareth Widdop is yet to lockdown a spot in the halves for his country of birth. Widdop was rotated in and out of the side during last year’s Four Nations but comes into the 2017 World Cup off the back of his best season yet in the NRL. Widdop has taken his game to the next level this year which was highlighted when the end of season awards were dished out. He finished a very commendable third in the running for the Dally M Player of the Year award Down Under as well as being named five-eighth of the year and claiming his club’s Player of the Year award. When you consider Widdop’s fine year has come under the nose of Wayne Bennett out in Australia, it’s hard to imagine the England coach won’t hand him the number six shirt for the World Cup opener.
Half-back: Luke Gale
Luke Gale came in for some criticism after his Castleford team failed to produce anywhere near their best in this year’s Grand Final. With many quick to point out Gale’s lack of influence on the big game, let’s not forget the consistently brilliant performances Gale churned out from way back in February to his semi-final heroics against St Helens. As Super League’s top point scorer and Man of Steel, Gale couldn’t have done much more to be selected by Wayne Bennet and whilst we have seen Widdop and Gale pair up previously, the fact that both are coming off such outstanding individual seasons gives England fans renewed optimism about seeing the two link up again in the halves.
Prop: James Graham
Moving on to a heavily NRL influenced pack and starting with a front row that all play their club rugby Down Under. Along with his partners in the front row, James Graham’s inclusion is one of the easiest selections in this side. Graham has built an enormous reputation getting the better of the best forwards Australia has to offer on a weekly basis since his arrival in Oz, back in 2012. His consistent performances for both club and country make him a shoe in for the England side.
Hooker: Josh Hodgson
Just like James Graham, Josh Hodgson has built a reputation as one of the world’s best in his position since his move to the NRL. Even though we are blessed with an array of English hookers in Super League with the likes of James Roby, Daryl Clark and Danny Houghton; I think it’s fair to say Canberra’s Hodgson remains a level above and has cemented his place as the starting hooker for England.
Prop: Sam Burgess
Completing the front row will be the poster boy for English Rugby League. The last time Sam Burgess played in a World Cup, it was in the other code where he was made a scapegoat for England Rugby Union’s failed campaign. Now back in the sport where he made his name, Burgess has another shot at a World Cup and I think we can expect him to take to the field with a point to prove to the English media that painted him in such a bad light in 2015.
Second-row: Elliot Whitehead
The final NRL representative we can expect to see in the starting 13 is Josh Hodgson’s Canberra teammate Elliot Whitehead. Whilst the Raiders didn’t match the heights of last season after failing to make the top 8, the English pair have had solid seasons Down Under with the two leading the way in terms of tackles made for their club. Add to this the fact that Whitehead, like Hodgson, has been a consistent performer when wearing the white of England it is fair to assume his place in the side is assured.
Second-row: Mike McMeeken
Mike McMeeken only made his England debut this year against Samoa but his strong campaign for Castleford, which saw him named in the Dream Team, will surely be enough to earn him a starting spot in Wayne Bennett’s side. Whilst this is a position where England do have options in the likes of John Bateman, Ben Currie and Chris Heighington; McMeeken has outperformed them all this year and has the added advantage of being an unknown quantity to the Australian side.
Loose forward: Sean O’Loughlin
Completing the pack will be the England captain, Sean O’Loughlin. Despite Wigan not having the best of campaigns by their high standards, O’Loughlin was as consistent as ever which saw him named in the Super League Dream Team for the sixth time. Whilst the Wigan and England captain has never applied his trade Down Under like Burgess and Graham, the recent news that he rejected an approach from Newcastle Knights shows just how highly thought of the England captain is in Australia.
The 2017 season saw James Roby get back to his best and remind everyone just why he has over 30 caps at international level. Whilst we’re not short of options for the hooking role, Roby’s impact off the bench with his speed out of dummy half against tiring defenders will complement Hodgson’s creativity and might be what gave him the nod ahead of the alternatives.
Chris Hill was unable to show his best form this year as he captained a Warrington side that could only make the Qualifiers. However, Hill has been a solid performer whenever called upon at international level and the fact that someone of his ability only makes the bench highlights the strength in depth we have in this position.
Although uncapped, it would be impossible to leave Alex Walmsley out of this side. Super League’s top metre-maker could be a huge presence coming off the bench and his ability to skittle opposition defenders on a regular basis puts him ahead of Scott Taylor and Tom Burgess for the last prop spot.
The final pick in the team goes to one of Super League’s most consistent performers, John Bateman. The back rower, who could replace Sean O’Loughlin’s aggression when he’s off the field, could just as easily slot into the second-row and even provides cover in the centres where he played for all three tests against the Kiwis in 2015.