England coach Wayne Bennett has delivered a vote of confidence in half-backs Luke Gale and Gareth Widdop ahead of Friday’s World Cup opener against Australia.
Super League Man of Steel Gale will partner NRL-based Widdop for the third time as they go up against new Kangaroos half-back pairing Cooper Cronk and Michael Morgan, who has been given the onerous task of filling the boots of the injured Johnathan Thurston.
Bennett, whose Brisbane team were undone by a Morgan-inspired North Queensland Cowboys in the NRL play-off semi-finals, is taking little comfort from the absence of Thurston, who has undergone shoulder surgery, but is delighted with the domestic form of his two half-backs.
“I don’t think you get too many advantages over Australia and I’m not counting on that being one either,” Bennett said after England’s training session at Melbourne’s Albert Park.
Widdop, captain of St George Illawarra, was second only to Australia captain Cameron Smith in the voting for the prestigious Dally M award in 2017 while Gale won the Super League equivalent.
Bennett added: “Gareth is really confident and that confidence rubs off on other people. Luke won Man of Steel over there and I can see how much more confident he is this year.
“They get the team around great so I’m more than happy with what I’ve got, they’ve just got to play well on the night.”
As expected, Jonny Lomax takes over at full-back from Stefan Ratchford after missing last Friday’s warm-up match against a Combined Affiliated States with a slight hamstring strain and his St Helens team-mate Alex Walmsley is set to win his first cap from the bench despite missing Tuesday’s training session due to illness.
“Lomax looks as though he’ll play,” Bennett said. “He’s feeling no pain and he’s moving really well. Alex Walmsley is not here, he’s got a bit of a virus, but it’s not too serious.
“I’ve got the team worked out in my mind but we’re putting 21 players out today so you’ll have to work it out from there.”
The team list issued by the World Cup organisers, who announced all 14 squads for the opening round of matches, suggests that Wigan second rower John Bateman will keep the centre spot he occupied in the warm-up game.
It also reveals Ben Currie will probably have to wait to win his first cap after failing to make the first 17 along with Kevin Brown, Mark Percival and Scott Taylor. Ratchford, George Williams and Mike McMeeken were earlier left out of the full 24-man squad.
Bennett concedes his team will not be at their best on Friday but is confident they are making progress as they set their sights on not only reaching their first final for 22 years but winning the World Cup for the first time since 1972.
“I’m really pleased with the preparations,” he said. “We had a really good week in Perth and I’m happy with what we’ve done here.
“They’ve been with me 12 months now so we all know each other. There’s much better understanding and acceptance of what we need to do.
“We won’t be at our best on Friday night, they won’t be at their best either, it’s where we’re at in six weeks’ time. We want to be in that final, that’s what we’re aiming for.”