In our 16th and final edition of ‘Starting XVII’ we focus on the host country, England.
The ‘Wall of White’ came within inches, literally, of World Cup glory back in 2017, when Josh Dugan’s ankle tap on Kallum Watkins prevented an almost certain late try to secure Australia their 11th title and deny England of their first.
It was the country’s most successful World Cup campaign since 1995 and instilled a belief that the Aussies and Kiwis could finally be toppled.
With new coach Shaun Wane at the helm, it’s likely the squad will undergo some changes, so here’s who we think he’ll go with…
Fullback – Zak Hardaker
Hardaker has been sensational for Wigan since his return from a drugs ban. His selection is arguably a controversial one, not least because of his shift into the centres in 2020, but on the basis of form and with his versatility, he’ll likely just nudge out the likes of Sam Tomkins and Stefan Ratchford. He’s one of the best defensive fullbacks in the world, with some of his biggest career moments being try-saving tackles, and links up well with the halves in attack.
Wingers – Tom Makinson and Tom Johnstone
There are several options here, namely Huddersfield veteran Jermaine McGillvary, but these two are among the top contenders to make the cut. 2018 Golden Boot winner Makinson has dazzled fans at both club and international level with his gravity-defying finishes and is a shoo-in to start. Johnstone, meanwhile, would likely be a regular starter too if it wasn’t for injuries. He’s played just 11 games in the past 18 months due to two serious knee problems but did average one try per game during that period. An injury-free lead up to the competition would be a perfect chance for the 24-year-old to prove his worth to Wane.
Centres – Harry Newman and Oliver Gildart
Newman has been on the radar since 2017 but is in a prime position to line up for England at the World Cup. He’s established himself as a regular in Leeds’ starting 13, with his natural skill and unphased aggression making him one of the country’s top talents. Gildart had a similar meteoric rise and was superb in the 2018 tests against New Zealand. His Lions Tour last year was cut short by a dislocated shoulder, so he’ll be looking for a big tournament next Autumn. You also can’t discount explosive Hull centre Josh Griffin, who’s been staking his own claim for a spot with some impressive performances for the Black and Whites.
Halves – George Williams and Jonny Lomax
The halves is probably Shaun Wane’s most important decision. The combination of Gareth Widdop and Jackson Hastings for Great Britain wasn’t as fruitful as many had hoped, while Blake Austin isn’t likely to be considered either. Williams and Lomax, therefore, seem the likeliest option. Wane worked with Williams at Wigan and so is fully aware of his ability, while Lomax is among Super League’s best players. Jake Trueman and Luke Gale will also be in the mix but it’s hard to look past these two.
Props – Alex Walmsley and Luke Thompson
The current St Helens front row partners are the perfect men to lead the England pack. They have the full package – size, strength, aggression and mobility. Thompson’s season in the NRL next year will also hopefully improve his game and give him more of an education on how to combat Kangaroo and Kiwi forwards.
Hooker – Josh Hodgson
Hodgson will be one of several leaders in the side and could even take over as captain by the time the World Cup comes around. He’s got great vision from dummy half and is the central part of the ‘British invasion’ at Canberra Raiders, alongside Williams and back rowers Bateman and Whitehead. Part of his role there has also been to switch between the hooker and loose forward position, which will allow for more creativity should Shaun Wane wish to have both him and Daryl Clark on the pitch at the same time.
Second Rowers – John Bateman and Elliott Whitehead
The Bradford academy graduates form one of the NRL’s best second row partnerships. Whitehead is into his fifth season with Canberra and still seems to be improving year on year, constantly garnering praise for his ability to take passes at pace and good angles. Bateman had a stellar debut season for the Raiders in 2019, proving those who thought he wouldn’t cut it down under wrong and being touted as one of the competition’s best UK imports. They both demand starting spots for England and are unlikely to be shifted anytime soon.
Loose Forward – Morgan Smithies
The 19-year-old is being tipped as the man to replace Sean O’Loughlin as Wigan’s number 13, and could well do the same for the national side. Smithies stunned fans after breaking onto the Super League scene last season, with his work rate and defensive performance among his top qualities. He even broke the record for tackles in a game, making an enormous 72 in 62 minutes during a play-off win over Salford. He’ll be coming off the back of his third Super League season when the World Cup arrives and is likely to have made a strong case for a starting spot should he continue to impress.
Subs – Daryl Clark, Liam Watts, Tom Burgess, Josh Jones
In the past, three forwards and a utility have been England’s go-to bench of choice and, despite the influence of a new coach, it’s hard to change that approach. Watts has proved in the past couple of years why he’s worthy of a call-up and hopefully won’t be ignored by Shaun Wane, while Burgess has been doing the hard yards in the NRL for the past eight years. Clark adds a spark and can inject some pace and enthusiasm when brought on, with Jones completing the subs as a robust back rower who can rotate with Bateman, Whitehead and Smithies.