In the second of his Four Nations columns, the ex-Wigan and Great Britain centre reflects on defeat to the Kiwis - and picks out areas England need to improve.
I took plenty of positives from England’s 17-16 defeat against New Zealand, because we pushed the No.1 ranked nation to a point.
We have an excellent squad, we had no problems with field position and creating opportunities – we just didn’t execute as well as we had to.
I still think we’ve got a good side, and Wayne Bennett will have learned a lot from the match.
Test level is so often about fine margins – that’s seven games in a row against either Australia or New Zealand which has been settled by a score – and that in itself is encouraging.
We’re not far off.
But at this level, you get so few opportunities and it comes down to nailing them when the pressure is on.
Hindsight is wonderful, and looking back it would be so easy to say we should have gone for a drop-goal at the end to level the match.
The Kiwis played most of the second-half without Tommy Leuluai, and so – had they locked the score – I would have fancied England to go on and win, because the Kiwis would have had to force their hand with only one halfback and we could have been more patient, and less erratic.
It was Shaun Johnson who ultimately came up with the decisive play with his one-pointer in the 65th minute.
Our forwards will destroy theirs
I know some have suggested the drop-goal was wide – I’ve watched it back, and there is a shot which makes it appear like it missed – but I think he got it. The telling factor was the reaction of the England boys – they weren’t blowing up.
Believe me, if James Graham had thought it had missed, he’d have been right in the ref’s face!
In the last 15 minutes, England had plenty of chances to draw, or win, but their execution was a bit off, passes were behind players, and they let the Kiwis off the hook. We just lacked composure and skill when it mattered.
The defeat leaves England’s hopes of reaching the final in jeopardy. They must now beat Australia, as well as this week’s opponents Scotland, and unless the Kiwis beat the Kangaroos it will then come down to for-and-against.
But there’s a danger if England approach Saturday’s match against the Scots with the attitude of trying to rack up a big scoreline.
If you force it too much, there’s the risk of making errors and the other team will get encouraged – so if anything, the players need to tighten up. Their pack is mainly comprised of players from the Championship, and our forwards can destroy theirs. We don’t have to be too fancy – we just need to be ruthless, and not give them an inch.
I think Australia completed their first eight sets against the Scots in their 54-12 win last Friday. By the time they made a mistake, they were well in control on the scoreboard.
England need to approach this game the same as if they’re playing Australia.
I thought Wayne may have been reluctant to change his side too much, though he’s already said Liam Farrell and George Williams will come in.
Immediately after Saturday’s match, I thought of two or three areas he would look to tweak.
For example, at centre, last week I questioned whether he would go for backfield work or class at the other end, and he opted for Dan Sarginson. But with two strong wingers and the forwards they have, we don’t really need a centre to be making strong carries – England had no problems getting out of their own half – and that’s why I think Mark Percival has got to be in.
As a former centre, in my opinion the best centre we have in the squad isn’t playing. Percival needs to be in there, either at left or right. He has so much class, and can play in either spot.
Wingers McGillvary and Hall both did well, full-back Jonny Lomax was at fault for one of the Kiwis’ tries – he should have made the tackle on Jordan Rapana – but otherwise he did well, and his positioning was brilliant.
At halfback, Gareth Widdop, apart from the intercept, was better and his goal-kicking was good. It’s a coach’s preference betwen Luke Gale and George Williams, but personally I’d opt for Williams because he can scare defences with his pace, instincts and strength – especially if England offload well.
They really troubled the Kiwis with their second-phase plays early in Saturday’s match, and probably didn’t do it enough. It worked well for them and, if Williams was there to feed off those offloads, I think it’s something which could be successful for them in this tournament.
The starting pack was strong, and I was really impressed with hooker Josh Hodgson. Since he’s gone to the NRL, his game has gone to another level, he rarely gets tackled, he probes, he controls, he brings forwards on to the ball.
James Graham and Chris Hill started well, but I don’t think he will bring the two Burgess twins on at the same time. When they were on, Kiwi hooker Isaac Luke started running from dummy-half because the bigger men can’t get off the floor as quickly.
So I’d be tempted to either overlap the substitutions, or drop one of the Burgess twins. With Jammer injured this week, Scott Taylor will get a chance.
John Bateman was quiet – he can be better than he showed – but the ball didn’t go his way. He is suited to the middle, running the angles as he does, and there is the option of bringing him off the bench, and possibly starting Liam Farrell or Mike Cooper in the left side second-row.
Faz is probably the best line-runner of all the backrowers, he can pass, I imagine he will be the fittest forward in the squad – his engine is unbelievable – and he has the big-game experience.
It’s encouraging for England that we have some good players like him who could not get in the side last week.
With Hodgson doing so well, and able to play for 80 minutes without fading, we don’t need a bench-hooker. Instead, he could put Stefan Ratchford on the bench – he offers something different in attack.
Scotland will have picked this game out as one they really want to win, but either way, I expect England to win comfortably – if they do the right things.
And in the second match at Coventry, I think Australia will be too strong for the Kiwis – which will send it down to the following week in London.