SEVEN Yorkshire clubs provide a core of experience and youthful energy for England’s opening Four Nations Series clash with Samoa.
And this strength ensures coach Steve McNamara remains confident his side can overcome the shock of losing new captain Sean O’Loughlin for the match.
The influential Wigan loose-forward, who was the logical choice to succeed Leeds Rhinos’ Kevin Sinfield as captain of the national team, has failed to recover from a quad strain sustained in the Warriors’ Grand-Final defeat by St Helens.
Former St Helens skipper James Graham will lead the side out at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium for the first part of Saturday’s double-header while Hull loose-forward Joe Westerman will take over the number 13 jersey and win his first cap.
“Sean tried his best and our medical staff tried their best but the Samoa match has come too soon,” McNamara said. “We thought it was right that we made an early decision but we remain confident he’ll be ready for Australia the week after.
“It’s a blow because he’s our leader and obviously he’s a really, really good player. But I’m really happy with his replacement. Joe had a great season for Hull FC, a team that didn’t make the top eight, and to be a real stand-out for them shows what a quality player he is.”
McNamara has named two other debutants in his starting line-up - Wigan scrum-half Matty Smith and Hull KR hooker Josh Hodgson – while 2014 Man of Steel Daryl Clark is set to make his England bow from the bench.
“There is a slight evolution to the squad this year with some new faces on show,” McNamara said. “The debutants are exciting and they can prove themselves on the international stage.”
Hodgson, who will stay on in Australia at the end of the tour to take up a two-year contract with Canberra Raiders, has been given the number nine jersey.
But McNamara also expects the Warrington-bound Clark to make an impact.
“Daryl’s (the) Man of Steel and has been the best player in the competition this season so there is no doubting his ability,” he said. “I think Daryl’s undoubted electric speed will also help us when he comes on when the sting goes out of the game.”
The only surprise is the selection of Joel Tomkins, whose appearance in the Grand Final was only his seventh in rugby league since his return from a three-year stint in the 15-man code, ahead of Super League Dream Team second rower Elliott Whitehead.
“Joel is very experienced and a very good player,” McNamara said. “He fought his way back into the Wigan team, played in a Grand Final and has been in this group before. He brings a whole lot of leadership and energy into the group. He’s a tremendous player to have back with us.”
The Super League-based players have been in Australia for less than a week but McNamara is confident that by Saturday his side will be ready for what could be a tricky opening test.
“We’ve only had nine days to get ready but we knew that from the outset,” McNamara said. “The thing with this group is that they are very intelligent players.
“We’ve got some great combinations going. Ideally you would like to test them out in a game situation before the tournament but I’m really confident.”
The England team to play Samoa in the opening game of the Four Nations Series at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, on Saturday is: S Tomkins (New Zealand Warriors); J Charnley (Wigan), K Watkins (Leeds), M Shenton (Castleford), R Hall (Leeds); G Widdop (St George Illawarra), M Smith (Wigan); G Burgess (South Sydney), J Hodgson (Hull KR), J Graham (Canterbury Bulldogs, capt), L Farrell (Wigan), J Tomkins (Wigan), J Westerman (Hull). Replacements: D Clark (Castleford), B Ferres (Huddersfield), T Burgess (South Sydney), C Hill (Warrington Wolves).