England coach Wayne Bennett says his team for the knockout stages of the World Cup is still “open for negotiation”.
Bennett is ringing the changes for Sunday’s final group game against France at the Rectangular Stadium in Perth in order to give all members of his 24-man squad some game time before the quarter-finals.
Castleford Tigers’ Mike McMeeken, Mark Percival, Scott Taylor, and Kevin Brown will make their first appearances of the tournament, with Leeds Rhinos pair Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins along with Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead, and Chris Heighington all rested after playing in both games so far.
“It’s just about giving everybody the opportunity to play,” Bennett said after an open training session at Fremantle Oval yesterday.
“They get disheartened if they don’t get that opportunity. We wanted to use them if we could and we’re at a stage where we can do that.”
Hall, England’s all-time leading tryscorer, was on stand-by to play against the French had fellow winger Jermaine McGillvary been found guilty of biting, but a positive outcome from yesterday’s disciplinary hearing in Sydney means he can put his feet up.
Bennett confirmed that full-back Jonny Lomax (calf) and second-row forward Sam Burgess (knee), who both sat out last Saturday’s 29-10 win over Lebanon in Sydney, should be back for the quarter-final, which is expected to be against Papua New Guinea, in Melbourne on November 19.
However, Bennett insists he has not yet finalised his team for that match, saying: “It’s all open for negotiation.”
And he admits the French game could give him an opportunity to experiment.
Gareth Widdop, for example, will switch from stand-off to full-back, the position in which he made his England debut against France in 2010 and could stay there if Lomax fails to shake off his latest injury.
“It’s an option, but I needed to play Kevin Brown and George Williams, so there’s an opportunity to put Gareth Widdop at full-back,” Bennett said. “He was a full-back so let’s see how he goes.”
Brown and Luke Gale will have an opportunity to build on their half-back partnership which helped England to an impressive 30-10 win over Samoa earlier in the year when both Williams and Widdop were absent through injury.
Bennett will be hoping for more of a cutting edge on Sunday after England failed to press home their obvious advantage against Lebanon.
“I just want them to play well,” Bennett added. “That’s always the first thing you want to see from your team, to play well, and if do that they’ll cover a lot of the bases we need to cover.We lost our way a little bit in the second half the other night but, other than that, they’ve been good.”
England brought forward their training session by an hour to 9am on Wednesday due to the heat and temperatures are expected to remain close to 30 degrees for the rest of the week.