England’s chances of breaking its long World Cup drought have gone from small to almost non-existent in the space of a few months.
This week’s news that Alex Walmsley will miss the tournament through injury was another hammer blow for coach Shaun Wane.
The scary reality now is that England will be without a host of first-choice and talented players to call on for the World Cup, and without the depth to adequately replace them. When you look at the cattle that New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Fiji and now Samoa can call on, it is a frightful sight in comparison.
In 2017 the men in white went agonisingly close to breaking their World Cup duck. With one of the best coaches of all-time at the helm, Wayne Bennett, and with world-class performers like Sam Burgess, Sean O’Loughlin, James Graham and James Roby at the helm, they pushed the Kangaroos all the way. Only a fortuitous ankle tap stopped them from forcing extra-time at a tense Suncorp.
It was England’s best World Cup result since 1995.
But five years on and England are not a better team than they were in Brisbane. The Tongans and Samoans have improved, and the Kiwis are much more formidable now.
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) September 15, 2022
The Aussies have lost Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, but have replaced them with James Tedesco, Cameron Munster and Harry Grant. History suggests they will be OK.
However, England have not been able to replace generational talent like Roby, O’Loughlin, Burgess and Graham. And a large number of the players who could make a real impact in this team are either injured, and unavailable, or have been in far from impressive form.
Let’s look at the injury list. Apart from Walmsley, the hosts will be without Josh Hodgson, Lewis Dodd, Tom Johnstone, Liam Farrell and Jake Trueman. There remain some injury worries over Mark Percival, Harry Newman, Ash Handley and several others.
Captain Sam Tomkins appears to have been struggling with a knee issue for several weeks. Herbie Farnworth has not played for some time, but says he will be available, and Jonny Lomax has been through a brutal and arduous campaign. Lomax needs to be at his best next month.
Roby has retired from the international game, as has stalwart Jermaine McGilvary. Gareth Widdop has also called time on Test footy. Ryan Hall has had a great international career, but he is 34 and approaching his twilight years. Luke Thompson should be a certainty to be picked for England, but he has not played much for the Bulldogs this year.
The Warrington contingent of George Williams, Daryl Clark, Ben Currie and Stefan Ratchford have not turned up any trees in 2022, with the Wolves finishing second from bottom in Super League. But probably will all be picked for England regardless.
Over in the NRL, Oliver Gildart has failed to make a mark in Australia. George Burgess has been plagued by off-field issues and Ryan Sutton has undergone finger surgery. But at least Sutton is in Canberra’s team for the semi-finals this weekend, along with the dependable Elliot Whitehead, while Tom Burgess and Dom Young have shone down under this season.
With so many players injured or far from their best form, it will be intriguing how Wane selects his team. Does he go back to the past and give the likes of Chris Hill, Mike Cooper and Luke Gale another shot? Or does he look to the future and blood the likes of Cam Smith, Morgan Smithies or Harry Smith? Either way, there is risk.
Some bright spots remain. Jack Welsby is a freak and Roosters enforcer Victor Radley is a great pick-up for England. Morgan Knowles has been in great touch this season, along with St Helens teammate Joe Batchelor. If the likes of Lomax, Tommy Makinson, John Bateman and others can fire at the World Cup, then the hosts will be competitive. But it is a heavy burden.
New Zealand have announced their World Cup squad and it is brimming with Melbourne, Penrith, Parramatta and Roosters talent. Samoa will have the core of the Panthers’ champion team, while Tonga have Jason Taumalolo, Addin Fonua-Blake and a host of elite NRL players to select. Fiji will have Api Korisau, Villiame Kikau, Maika Sivo and Waqa Blake in their ranks. The Pacific is rising.
Home support and weather conditions could play a part. Wet and cold pitches should suit England over their southern hemisphere opponents, though that wasn’t the case in 2013.
A lot will rest on the opening game against Toa Samoa in Newcastle. Even Wane knows the enormity of the task, declaring his team are “huge underdogs” against the Pacific Islanders in that game. Either Wane is a realist, or employing some very public reverse psychology.
🏆 The 2 biggest prizes in domestic Rugby League are still up for grabs, as are places in squads for RLWC2021!
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) September 16, 2022
Beat the Samoan on Tyneside and the World Cup will start with a bang. The hosts will be confident, more fans will buy in and ticket sales should rise for the other games. But lose in that banana skin and a date with Tonga in the quarter-finals beckons. A sobering thought.
The real question remains, if England do struggle in the World Cup, how much impact will that have on the wider success of the tournament? A competition we are repeatedly told is vital and a great opportunity for rugby league’s growth in the UK?