AS SOMEONE so well-versed in the Australian game, coaching more than anyone else with over 800 first-grade games, England chief Wayne Bennett is well-placed to offer a view on Leeds Rhinos’ Kallum Watkins’ move to Gold Coast Titans
The veteran boss is pleased on two counts; for the classy player’s own development but also knowing it should help him improve his Test side.
There are currently nine England internationals operating in the NRL and Bennett has spoken before about how he feels that tough, high-quality environment can sharpen them all.
Centre Watkins will become a 10th when he moves to Queensland on a two-and-a-half year deal after his final game for Leeds against Catalans Dragons a week on Sunday.
Granted, having won everything there is to win in the domestic game here, the Rhinos captain has endured a difficult campaign on his return from an ACL and has even found himself playing second-row recently.
But there is no doubting the 28-year-old’s talent and South Sydney boss Bennett – who has worked with him at England since 2016 – hopes that will flourish further in the NRL.
“I’m really pleased for Kallum,” he said, about a player who has scored 12 tries in 25 Tests since debuting in 2012 and played in the World Cup final two years ago.
“I noticed with Kallum the higher the standard of game we (England) played in, the higher he lifted himself, and I just think he needs that level of competition over there every week to just see how good he really is.
“He’s a wonderful player who’s had a bit of a tough time with it with a knee reconstruction. That has knocked him around a bit. Regardless of what we may feel as coaches it takes them at least another 12 months from when they rehab to get themselves back to their best.
“It’s not a nice injury actually and it does take a bit of time.
“He’s got half a season behind him here now and the Coast will be good for him. It will challenge him. And the competition will challenge him.”
Of the England internationals in the NRL, three – the Burgess brothers Sam, Tom and George – all play under Bennett at Souths while Gareth Widdop and James Graham operate at St George Illawarra.
Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman are at Canberra Raiders while Wigan Warriors stand-off George Williams is expected to join them in 2020.
Meanwhile, winger Ryan Hall is in his first season at Sydney Roosters after leaving Leeds at the end of last season.
Ex-Bradford Bulls star Bateman has been a revelation in his first season at Canberra, the abrasive back-row being lauded by greats of the game as the best recruit in the NRL.
Uncapped forward Ryan Sutton, who left Wigan for Raiders with Bateman, has impressed, too, and it would be no surprise if he forced his way into Bennett’s England plans, if not Great Britain this autumn.
“I’ve said to these guys here – I’ll be quite candid with you all – the guys that play for England, there’s not one of them that couldn’t play in the NRL competition and be regular players in first grade,” he said. “Not one of them. It’s been proved again with Bateman and Sutton turning up.
“They just don’t get the raps they probably deserve. But if we can win more games at Test level they will. Bateman’s just got everybody enraptured by the way he plays, and he’s a guy that did a great job for me in the centres and on the edge.
“We all know what he brings if you’ve played with him or coached him. Sutton’s been doing well there, too.”
Since switching from Brisbane Broncos coach this season, Bennett now gets to work with Dewsbury-born England star Sam Burgess on a daily basis.
He said: “Sam puts it out there every day. I see a very passionate Englishman every day who’s really proud of his country and loves his rugby league.
“Every day he wants to play rugby league and nothing changes. He’s a great ambassador, outstanding, and so is James Graham.
“Whatever England has done the last five, six years, has been down to those two guys. They’ve both really put their hands up and made my job easier.”