The former Wigan and Great Britain centre starts the first of his Four Nations columns – and says he has high hopes for England.
England haven’t won a tournament involving Australia since 1972 and haven’t beaten the Kangaroos in a decade – but I honestly think they’ve got a great chance of success in the Four Nations.
I really like the look of the squad, it’s well-balanced, and there aren’t players who I can say, ‘He shouldn’t have been picked’.
We definitely have players who can cause problems, we have the advantage that it’s at home, and the players will be confident from winning the series against the Kiwis a year ago. If they play to their strengths, I think they can go all the way.
During my career, we went close to winning competitions involving the Aussies a few times – so many Tests when we were in front or level with a few minutes to go, and we would lose. I beat them in a couple one-off Tests, but Andrew Johns used to say to me that they felt they had the mental edge on us; that they knew they would get us when it mattered.
I know there is no-one in the current squad who has beaten Australia, but I don’t think that’s a worry – I think the players will be confident, and Wayne Bennett can get the best out of them.
The France Test at the weekend was a decent hit-out, they looked good in spells, and they have some talented players to come back into the reckoning.
No disrespect to Scotland, but I can’t see them winning a game. And the fact the Aussies face the Scots first up is definitely an advantage for Mal Meninga’s men.
England open their campaign against New Zealand the following day, and I think we need to get the win.
Sure, a defeat would not be the end of the road mathematically – but it would really set them up for a good tournament, and boost their self-belief, if they won.
Mark Percival is so naturally-talented, one of the best in Super League
Who should play?
There are some interesting selection issues.
Ryan Hall has not had the best season but he’s proven at international level, and on the other wing, I thought Jermaine McGillvary should have been in from the start last year. They’re good at both ends.
Kallum Watkins will probably keep his place at right centre, but he needs a big Test series. I still don’t think we’ve really see him perform at Test level, and if he doesn’t do well, he risks being known as one of those who is good enough for Super League, and not at Test level.
The uncertainty is at left centre and full-back.
Dan Sarginson finished the year in the No.1 role for Wigan, but I think Jonny Lomax should get the nod. He’s rarely out of position, and he’s got all the attributes.
So, Sarge at left centre? I’m not sure. In back-field, he’s great, and he has good strength and a terrific work rate.
But St Helens’ Mark Percival is a class act, I rate him really highly – I think he has the potential to kill it in this tournament. He can play left and right, and doesn’t look any weaker in either role, it’s as if he’s ambidextrous!
He’s so naturally talented – one of the best in Super League – and probably offers more than Sarge on the opponents’ line, so it’s a coach’s preference and how he thinks the game will pan out.
The same at halfback.
I don’t think Kevin Brown did himself an injustice against France, but I think Wayne will go Gareth Widdop and George Williams.
The forwards he has are all good off-loaders, and the Kiwis have troubled the Australians in the past with their second-phase plays, and I think England will look to do that as well.
Aussies will defend shape and structure all-day. I remember when Wigan were well-beaten by Brisbane earlier this year, Sean O’Loughlin said afterwards that they ran the same kind of plays, they just executed them a lot better. They do it in so much more fine detail than we do, so I think our strengths will be if we play a bit flat, push, look for offloads – and that warrants Williams going straight in at no.6.
He is a massive threat, he’s had a good season, and he’s alert to off-loads.
In the pack, we have some great forwards, and they offer variety.
Some like to take it to the line and pass, others are direct, or have good footwork, or like angles... those contrasting styles can cause problems.
If it was a pack of big blokes running directly, it’s one-dimensional and easier to defend against.
I will be keen to see how Wayne uses his bench because Chris Hill, James Graham and Sam Burgess can do big minutes, and hooker Josh Hodgson can easily go for 80 minutes – which frees up the option of putting a utility like Stef Ratchford on the bench, rather than Daryl Clark, another hooker.
In the back-row, I’d expect Sam Burgess to be at loose-forward, Elliot Whitehead in one second-row spot and John Bateman to take the other.
Bateman played left centre last year, but back-row is his best position, and he needs to be in the thick of it. The more he gets his hands on the ball, the more chances we have of winning the game.
I rate him so highly. I expect him to be one of our best players this year.
What I like about this squad is that even though we have some talented players missing – Sean O’Loughlin, Sam Tomkins, Ben Currie – the squad has cover. We’re not scratching our heads, wondering who will come in.
As it stands, there are some good players, like Scott Taylor or Liam Farrell or one of the Burgess boys, who will have to miss out, and that’s what you want at this level.
It promises to be an exciting series . Fingers crossed England do well.