WATCH - Wayne Bennett not afraid to select Australian imports in his first Great Britain squad
IT SHOULD come as no surprise given his innate winning mentality that Wayne Bennett will not care one iota if he ruffles feathers by picking fellow Australians in his first Great Britain squad.
Similarly, it will not concern the England coach in the slightest if there is no representation from Scotland, Ireland or Wales in the Lions side that tours New Zealand and Papua New Guinea this autumn.
With his club side South Sydney on an international break, Bennett is in the UK for a flying visit to meet up with his England players but also start preparations for Great Britain who will be reformed for the first time since 2007.
There are a number of in-form players who could come into consideration including St Helens full-back Lachlan Coote, the Australian-born Scotland international who has starred since joining from North Queensland Cowboys this term, as well as Regan Grace, the Wales winger who is a team-mate at the Super League leaders.
However, there is also talk about whether Bennett will look at stand-off Blake Austin, the Australian ‘marquee’ signing who leads the Steve Prescott Man of Steel leaderboard following his exploits in his first season with Warrington Wolves since moving from Canberra Raiders.
Like fellow countryman Jackson Hastings, the Salford Red Devils half-back who is attracting interest from Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors, he qualifies for Great Britain via an English grandparent.
Speaking at a Lions press conference at St Helens yesterday, Bennett maintained nobody was off limits.
“I’m going to pick the best team I possibly can from what I’m allowed to pick,” he said.
“If they’re eligible then I’ll pick the best players for the tour – the players want that and that’s what I want. We’re not at someone’s beck and call to pick players from a certain country.
“It will be the best side and nobody’s suggested otherwise to me, and I don’t think they would suggest otherwise.”
Bennett added: “I’ve seen Lachlan play. He’s been outstanding and I’ve always rated what he brings to a team. Blake seems to really be enjoying his footy, and I see great talent in him that he hasn’t lived up to at times. But he seems to be settled now. If they’re eligible and want to come into the mix then that’s a decision we’ll have to make.”
Granted, it is a strange scenario for Bennett who knows his England side – not the Lions – will entertain Australia for a three-game series next year before England host the 2021 World Cup, too.
It would, then, be no surprise if he stuck largely with the players he already knows well having beaten New Zealand last year and reached the World Cup final two years ago.
The veteran coach, regarded by many as one of the best in the sport’s history, conceded: “The World Cup is the pinnacle, and it being here in your country in 2021 it’s important that we have our best team.
“All my thinking at the moment is towards that. This is a year with a bit of give and take in it. The team that will be playing in the World Cup and against Australia next year will be in my mindset.”
Bennett is out of contract at the end of this year but said: “I’m not thinking about new deals.
“I just want to get the best players down to New Zealand and do the best we can. In my own mind I’d like to be here for the World Cup in 2021 and the squad’s just about here for that.”
Meanwhile, Bennett is also in the process of interviewing candidates for two roles on his Lions coaching staff.
Previous England assistant James Lowes left the sport to join Ealing Trailfinders recently while Paul Wellens, the St Helens assistant who also works for England, has asked to stay at home this autumn