Super League is gearing up for another season, in a year when a World Cup lands. England is hosting and hoping to end a trophy drought that goes back more than half a century.
Central to their hopes is finding and developing a world-class halfback pairing that can lead them to glory. They have long boasted big, quality forwards that can mix it with the best but need their own Jonathan Thurston, Benji Marshall, Wally Lewis, Cooper Cronk or Peter Sterling if you will.
But when you look across the competition, it’s clear that England is already starting with one hand behind their back. Super League is largely dominated by Australian, Kiwi and Pacific Islander playmakers, not those born and raised in the Old Dart.
Only four clubs – St Helens, Castleford, Warrington and Hull KR – are likely to rely on two English halves in their starting XIII most rounds. Four out of 12 does not exactly bode well for competition for places for the national team.
🙌 Start your week the right way with all Singlets, Shorts and non-cotton Polo Shirts now just £10 for today only!
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) January 18, 2022
Leeds are expected to feature Aussies Blake Austin (however, who is eligible for England) and Aidan Sezer. Wakefield have Aussie Jacob Miller and Tongan international Mason Lino. Huddersfield have Frenchman Theo Fages and Tongan Tui Lolohea, while Hull FC have New South Welshman Josh Reynolds and former England international Luke Gale.
Salford have just signed Brodie Croft from Brisbane, and he is likely to be paired with Oldham product Marc Sneyd. Wigan have just signed Aussie Cade Cust from Manly, to go with either Kiwi veteran Thomas Leulai or Widnesian Harry Smith, while Catalans have just signed Mitch Pearce from Newcastle to partner another Antipodean in Josh Drinkwater.
Toulouse have just been promoted, but they are led by Novocastrian Jonathan Ford and one of the French pair of either Tony Gigot or Lucas Albert.
Out of a total of 24 halfback positions available, only 10 are expected to be filled by those born and raised in the UK, so less than half.
The pressure then is intently on the likes of St Helens duo Jonny Lomax and Lewis Dodd, Warrington pair George Williams and Gareth Widdop, Castleford’s Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson, and Hull KR partnership Mikey Lewis and Jordan Abdull to shine over the next 10 months.
England will most likely rely on Lomax, Williams, Widdop and Trueman come tournament time. Lomax has won many titles at Saints, while Williams and Widdop have proved themselves in the NRL. But if injuries strike at the end of the year, as no doubt they will, who steps into the fold?
Dodd and Lewis are both talented, young and have tremendous potential. But are they ready for the international stage?
If England are to break their long drought, whether it be in 2022 or at World Cups in the future, they need more opportunities for locally produced halfbacks. They need to provide more game-time for the Rowan Milnes, Oliver Russells, Riley Deans, Ben McNamaras, Jack Sinfields and others at the top level.
Super League clubs rely on southern hemisphere playmakers for short-term gain, but it comes at a price of long-term pain for the national team.
Apart from reducing the number of foreign players each team is allowed, and spending more time and money focused on developing the next batch of Millwards, Gregorys and Schofields, there is no easy answer for England.