The second forty minutes on Saturday helped change the tone of this blog somewhat.
Previously, it was going to be about another embarrassment for England, a poor showing against a far superior Australian side. As it turned out, England, as they always seem to do, gave us a glimmer of hope, whether it be false or not, with a second half fightback that went some way to repairing the damage that resulted in the Wigan crowd booing them off at the break.
A notable difference in the second half was the appearance of Kyle Eastmond, who looked a threat whenever he had ball in hand, despite being stuck out in the centres for most of his 40 minutes on the field. Eastmond, together with Sam Tomkins and Richie Myler, are the future of the England side, and it is now up to Tony Smith and any potential successor of his to not let the opportunity to build a settled side go to waste.
Our southern hemisphere rivals seem to benefit from very little change to their ranks year on year, and any change that is made is assured to be a positive one – far too often, England just try a few different options without analysing their effect or their impact on the squad.
Judging by Saturday’s performance too, Sam Burgess will take the NRL by storm next year. His defence was as solid as any and he, together with Gareth Ellis, showed their class. Ellis proved that the standard of players has improved in the UK by cutting it in the NRL in 2009, and it is now up to Burgess, and hopefully many others, to follow his lead.
Following the World Cup fall-out – where blame has evidently been attributed to the likes of Paul Wellens, Rob Burrow and Martin Gleeson – this year has ultimately become one of transition for Tony Smith’s men. However, it is disappointing that we are still trying out new things half way through the Four Nations – wasn’t the point of the mid-season international against France, and the pre-tournament clash with Wales, to discover what the best team line up was?
Smith has to produce. He’s shown at club level that he has the quality – most notably with Warrington’s recent Challenge Cup win – but the only success of his international reign was the series victory over a severely under-strength New Zealand two years ago. It’s now time to identify, and settle, on a consistent side.
The first dilemma is where to play Eastmond, Tomkins and Myler. All three should play if fit. Perhaps this Saturday will see Eastmond start alongside Tomkins, in place of Danny McGuire, who’s substitution on Saturday was greeted by painful cheers, as the talented stand-off continues to fail to reproduce his club form at international level.
If anyone put their hand up for a place in the starting 13 against New Zealand on Saturday it was Eorl Crabtree. The Huddersfield forward showed the way to his more fashionable team-mates, by taking the ball in with no fear and taking on the Australian forwards at their own game. Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley have served their country well over the years, but they had little impact last weekend, and it is maybe time now to start looking at young replacements for those two.
England’s main weakness, however, continues to be in the three-quarters. Martin Gleeson, supposedly our only world class centre option, was left out of the squad by Smith, a decision which has caused a considerable divide in opinion. I’m with the side that believes he should have been selected, not only in the squad, but in the starting 13. Lee Smith should not have been called up. The biggest insult to our game is to defect to rugby union, and besides giving him a few more caps for his trouble, his inclusion in the squad is not benefiting England at all.
What use was it giving Tom Briscoe a run out with Smith as his centre, when next season it will be someone totally different? Briscoe coped admirably under pressure, but was hauled off at half time, a victim of the latest gamble by Smith that has backfired. Ade Gardner has for some reason been overlooked, despite probably being the most prolific and consistent winger in Super League for the past few seasons. Michael Shenton and Ryan Hall impressed on the other side, and we shouldn’t forget the potential of Ryan Atkins, who will no doubt be a shoo-in for the centre spots next season – after all, he is playing under Smith at Warrington, which appears to give players an edge!
I’ve often been a critic of Ben Westwood, but he showed what it meant to play for your country with a typically passionate performance, even if he didn’t spend as long on the pitch as he would have liked. However, is he the type of player that will be good enough for England if we want to consistently compete with Australia and New Zealand?
This tournament could go some way to answering a few of the questions that the future poses. A few players may well be playing in their last series for England. There’s definitely a few players who are starring in their first tournament of many. It’s up to Tony Smith to decide who’s in and who’s out, as he looks for the solution to put England on the road to success.