THE BIG debate in rugby league at the moment is about international eligibility.
Specifically, should new England coach Wayne Bennett select Australian-based players, who qualify through ancestry, ahead of born-and-bred ones currently playing in Super League?
He won’t be doing anything wrong if he does. Obviously Bennett will look first at players he knows best and as coach of Brisbane Broncos, NRL-based individuals are the ones he sees on a regular basis.
England haven’t beaten Australia in a series since 1970, so if that is going to change this year they will have to take every advantage they can get. Australia make the most of the rules, bringing in players born in other nations who qualify on residency or through parents or grandparents, so England will get left – even further – behind if they don’t.
Would an England victory in the Four Nations be devalued if the team was packed full of Aussies? Possibly, though after almost half a century of failure, most England fans could probably live with that. But do England have enough players to field a strong side without jetting in Aussies?
Full-back: Jonny Lomax is fit again and impressing for St Helens, Jamie Shaul has had an outstanding season for Hull and Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford is also in form. Zak Hardaker, still a Leeds Rhinos player, is gaining valuable experience in the NRL on loan at Penrith Panthers, though not necessarily starting at full-back and obviously Sam Tomkins, despite not setting Super League alight on his return to the competition, will be difficult to displace. Looking further ahead, watch out for Wakefield Trinity’s Max Jowitt.
Wing: Lots of talent here. Leeds Rhinos’ Ryan Hall has had an injury-hit year and is currently playing outside the top flight, but is a proven performer at Test level. Team-mate Tom Briscoe has also proved he can step up to international standard, Jemaine McGillvary has been one of Huddersfield’s better performers in a dire season, Jodie Broughton is a regular try scorer for Catalans Dragons while St Helens’ Adam Swift is also in contention. Wakefield’s Tom Johnstone will also be in the running once he gets another couple of years’ experience under his belt.
Centre: England have a world-class talent in Kallum Watkins, whose form has been building over the past two months following a slow start to the campaign.
He has been playing in a struggling team – as has Huddersfield’s Leroy Cudjoe – and a long-term injury will rule out Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton, so this could be a problem area, although Saints’ Mark Percival could be a contender, too.
The likes of Joe Wardle (Huddersfield) and Josh Griffin (Salford) could be future options if they keep progressing and watch out for Castleford’s Greg Minikin, who is still at the rookie stage, but has huge potential.
Half-backs: Sadly, always a problem area. Luke Gale was unlucky not to get an opportunity last year and will certainly be in the squad. George Williams has impressed for Wigan this term, alongside Matty Smith and other options include Kevin Brown (Widnes) and Jordan Turner (Saints), but the stand-off role especially would benefit from overseas aid.
Prop: Hull’s Scott Taylor has been arguably Super League’s most in-form front-rower and team-mate Liam Watts has also had a big year, as have Chris Hill (Warrington) and Alex Walmsley (Saints).
Hooker: James Roby (Saints) and Daryl Clark (Warrington) will contest the spot and on form, Hull’s Danny Houghton shouldn’t be far off either, so plenty of English-based cover.
Second-row/loose-forward: Loads of quality options. Wigan’s John Bateman – used at centre last year – is tough and skilful and will take the game to the Aussies and Kiwis.
Warrington duo Jack Hughes and Ben Currie have both been in outstanding form, Joe Greenwood has been excellent for Saints and Sean O’Loughlin, Brett Ferres, Liam Farrell and Ben Westwood are all proven Test players.
On top of all those mentioned are a host of Englishmen currently playing in the NRL.
The Burgess clan, James Graham, Elliott Whitehead, Josh Hodgson and Gareth Widdop will all be in Bennett’s thoughts, so if Bennett wants to field a squad made up of English-born and raised players, he could do.