JAMES LOWES came from a great era of British hookers so it says something that he feels this current crop is better still.
One of the positives of England’s 18-4 World Cup loss against Australia was the sight of James Roby back in the national side.
The St Helens star came off the bench to replace Canberra Raiders’ Josh Hodgson and quickly injected himself into proceedings with his trademark darts offering much hope, particularly during the second half on Friday.
Roby, who turns 32 next month, had been overlooked by England head coach Wayne Bennett for last year’s Four Nations, but his renaissance is yet another sign of the nation’s No 9 strength.
With ex-Hull KR rake Hodgson and the 2007 Man of Steel set to combine again versus Lebanon in Sydney on Saturday, there are some stellar hookers sat at home still not able to force their way into the reckoning.
Warrington Wolves’ Daryl Clark, the 2014 Man of Steel when with Castleford Tigers, was omitted to make way for Roby.
Uncapped duo Danny Houghton – who won Man of Steel with Hull in 2015 – and Paul McShane, having thrived for Castleford this term, also remain on the periphery, illustrating the depth of England’s talent pool.
Lowes won five caps for Great Britain between 1997 – the year he was named Man of Steel with Bradford Bulls – and 2002, a number that would have been far greater if not for another world-class rake Keiron Cunningham.
Furthermore, the late Terry Newton was in the reckoning, too, in a time when the country was blessed with quality hookers.
Lowes, England assistant to Bennett’s predecessor Steve McNamara in the 2015 series win over New Zealand, told The Yorkshire Post: “You tend to get it where there’s an era of great number sevens or brilliant loose forwards – when they all tend to come at once.
“And I think now it seems to be the case with that nine position. It is a key role and Australia are one of the best teams in the world because their No 9 (Cameron Smith) is so very, very good.
“But over here it’s good to see most sides now have very good hookers themselves and most of them are playing really well.
“With England, we selected Robes, but didn’t start him in that Kiwis series. Obviously, Josh played a major role, but James Roby’s form towards the back end of this season has been superb and he’s probably been the form hooker in both competitions.
“I was surprised he didn’t start against Australia; how Robes plays is how we need to play against them. His dummy-half runs are very, very good and that area is where Australia probably are most vulnerable.
How Robes plays is how we need to play against them. His dummy-half runs are very, very good and that area is where Australia probably are most vulnerable.James Lowes
“Josh is a good player and experienced now, but he doesn’t run out of dummy-half as much.
“He controls it well around the ruck, like Cameron Smith, but against the Aussies, you want Robes’ attacking threat.
“When he came on, he looked dangerous and things happened off the back of him. Keiron (Cunningham) was the same.
“A lot of play arrived after his carries. Roby is in the same vein. For me, he should have started. But I’m not picking the team.”
Back in his second stint in charge of Yorkshire Carnegie, former Leeds Rhinos assistant Lowes has worked with many of this vintage including McShane, the 27-year-old who has just enjoyed his best season to date.
“I think he had to get away from Leeds to fulfil his potential and he’s certainly doing that now,” said Lowes about the former Rhinos academy product.
“He was great for Cas this season and I’m sure he’ll do well again in 2018. He’s a great rugby player. Defensively was probably his weakest aspect, but attacking wise, Macca is very, very good.
“I think Daryl Clark will come on leaps and bounds next season after a quiet year by his standards. Danny Houghton is a very, very good club player and someone you’d love in your side for what he brings.
“But Michael McIlorum is another great hooker who’s not been mentioned. He’s a tough player, ideal to face New Zealand and Australia, and is key for Wigan.
“I worked with him at England level. Wayne Bennett and Denis Betts will have their reasons for not picking him now and he’s taken the Ireland route as he wanted to play a World Cup, but I certainly think he’s good enough to get back in England contention.”
Indeed, the Leeds-born Wigan Warriors hooker, who last played for England in the 2013 World Cup, was superb during impressive Ireland’s shock 36-12 win over Italy on Sunday.
Lowes, similarly, opted to play for Ireland back in the 2000 World Cup only to see his chances then ruined by injury.
The 48-year-old, who hails from Leeds too, hopes England can end their long wait for World Cup glory.
But the former Bradford coach, who also assisted McNamara with England from 2010 to 2012, said: “I’d like to see a bit more flair from us, see us have more of a go. We were very ‘Australian’ on Friday and I don’t think we’ll beat them at their own game. Let’s sling it around a bit rather than just going toe-to-toe with them.
“I think we do need to play more, get the ball moving. James Graham is very good at that. Let’s put some plays on. If we do, I think we’ll be a proposition.
“People talk about Tonga and Fiji, but, after that first round, I still think the challenge will be New Zealand – who so many have written off – and Australia.
“We’re capable of beating both if we play and I’m surprised we haven’t played more as Bennett’s Brisbane Broncos side can be unpredictable in the NRL at times.
“Defensively we’re quite good. We just need to try more in attack to hurt Australia.”