The 2017 Rugby League World Cup is in full swing, with plenty of attention on England, who are looking to end Australia and New Zealand’s domination of the competition and reach their first final since 1995.
As usual, the trio are expected to be three of the four teams making it to the semi-finals, but Wayne Bennett is looking to end England’s miserable run of semi-final disappointments by masterminding a rare run to the final.
Early stages of the tournament have been promising for England, but Bennett has still received plenty of criticism for his squad selection prior to the tournament and then the selection of his starting XIII during the early stage of the competition.
England came unstuck against Australia in the opening game of the tournament, with Mal Meninga’s side running out 18-4 winners against the Wall of White. The Kangaroos remain firm favourites to win the competition after their start, with the Rugby League betting markets offering odds of 2/11 for them to defend the trophy they comprehensively won in 2013.
One moment stood out in that clash in late October, as England pressed for a way back into the contest, with John Bateman, selected as a left centre by Bennett, having the opportunity to put Ryan Hall into a try-scoring position. The Wigan Warriors back row failed to seriously commit the Australian defence and Hall was bundled into touch, with England bombing their only real opportunity to get back into the contest before a late Australian flourish secured victory.
Australia v England in 100 seconds
A steady start – something to build on pic.twitter.com/RRQEl3s1da
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) October 28, 2017
The tournament’s opening fixture suggested there wouldn’t be much between England and Australia, but if they meet later on in the competition, England will have to be far more clinical. Bateman’s selection at left centre for England’s opening two fixtures was widely criticised, particularly with Mark Percival, St Helens’ centre, in the England squad having enjoyed a magnificent 2017 Super League season that saw him make the Dream Team.
That takes us back to looking at Bennett’s squad selection, and why he limited his options so much across the backline, by padding his squad with a number of forward options. England have had a long association with players playing out of position in the World Cup, which has never previously worked, leading to further questions on Bennett – such as why the likes of Bateman, one of Super League’s best second-rowers, is finding himself in such a crucial attacking position.
Happy to have made the super league dream team ☺️ pic.twitter.com/mNXNP8qWvc
— Mark Percival22 (@MarkPercival22) September 25, 2017
Square pegs in round holes is a common phrase associated with English rugby league at international level, and as the tournament progresses, it would be nice to see Percival handed an opportunity, after travelling to Australia as the only recognised left centre. The St Helens man has speed to burn, and although he might not make the defensive impact Bateman does, his attacking prowess would frighten the world’s best backlines.
Of course, even with Bateman at centre, England have a chance of toppling Australia and New Zealand, but realistically, the left edge looks far less threatening than the right at this current time. Percival’s time will come at international level, but many at home are hoping to see that opportunity later in the 2017 World Cup, as Bennett looks to defy his critics and lead England to a first final in over two decades.