Wayne Bennett will name his England squad on Monday. In the first of his exclusive World Cup columns, former Wigan and Great Britain centre Martin Gleeson looks at likely candidates for each position...
It’s difficult to know whether Zak Hardaker will be picked without knowing the details of why he has been suspended by Castleford for the Grand Final.
Certainly, until this week he has been the best full-back all year and appeared nailed on for the No.1 shirt. In the Test against Samoa in May, Wayne Bennett actually gave Stefan Ratchford a run in that position (Zak was at centre), and the Warrington man will probably be in the squad again because of his versatility.
He can play anywhere in the backs and even at hooker, and given No.9s Josh Hodgson and James Roby can play long minutes, there’s the option to put Ratchford on the bench for a short spell – a scenario which would provide cover if any of the backs go down.
With or without Zak, I imagine there’ll be another full-back in the party. Jonny Lomax played in the Four Nations last year, but realistically he’s not going to play at full-back at St Helens now Ben Barba is there. Alternatively, Wayne could call-up my former Wigan team-mate Sam Tomkins.
Sam is a very competitive player and he’s come back from injury better than he did last year – he’s shown bit more of his old self.
But I think Sam’s in a bit of a win-win situation, because if he isn’t picked, it would mean he could have his first full, uninterrupted pre-season in a long time and it would give him a chance to smash it in training and make an even bigger impact next year.
Wayne has used Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall as his wingers for all of his Tests in charge, and I doubt he’s going to change that now; both players have a lot of credit in the bank.
But I’m sure he’ll take another winger. Greg Eden has a brilliant tryscoring record and though he is untested at international level, Wayne worked with him at Brisbane last year so he will already have an opinion of him.
Alternatively, Joe Burgess could easily come back into the frame after a good season back at Wigan.
At centre, Leeds’ Kallum Watkins will be an obvious choice for the right spot – though he has to start delivering at this level at some point.
For the left spot, I know Michael Shenton has been getting a lot of raps at Cas’, and he has silky hands, but I think St Helens’ Mark Percival would be a better option. He is such a talented player and he can play left or right centre.
Even though forward John Bateman can cover the centre role, I still think Wayne will take three specialists in that position.
Wigan’s Oliver Gildart has been included in the Italy squad, but I honestly thought he was England quality. I really enjoyed working with him when he came to Salford on loan in 2015, he’s a player I rate.
In the halves, Gareth Widdop has had a big year with St George Illawarra and looks like an obvious starter alongside Castleford’s Luke Gale.
Wayne then has to weigh up who he takes as his third halfback – George Williams or Kevin Brown – or both.
George has had the better season with his club but Kev did a good job for England in the Samoa Test and he got the nod against the Aussies a year ago; it will come down to who the coach trusts to get a job done. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if both Kev and George are in.
Up front, James Graham and Sam Burgess are obvious picks, and I saw a picture of Australian-born Chris Heighington and the Burgess twins in training, so I imagine they will be included.
As for the Super League props, I think they have to take a look at St Helens’ Alex Walmsley.
There’s no one better as an impact player – he comes off the bench and skittles opponents.
I also think Scott Taylor, Hull FC’s former Wigan prop, should get a run because he offers something different to the other props – he’s jinky, he’s awkward, and he would give England’s middle a different dimension. Sean O’Loughlin is an obvious pick at loose forward, and I’ll be interested to see which second-rowers are included.
Australian-born Chris McQueen was selected ahead of Wigan’s Liam Farrell in May, which suggests he may go down the same route again.
Bateman missed that Test against Samoa through injury but, for me, he has to be included. He can cover 13 for Lockers if needed – I like him in the middle – and he reminds me of a young Jamie Peacock with the way he plays.
He will go up another gear in the big Tests, and England would really benefit from his competitive streak.
Will Warrington’s Ben Currie get selected in the squad? I think he will.
He’s obviously a quality player but there’s a double risk in picking him, given he’s untested at that level and has missed most of the season through injury.
Canberra’s Elliott Whitehead and Castleford’s Mike McMeeken will both be in there too.
But Wayne has thrown some curveballs with his selections in the past – both in last year’s Four Nations, and in May – so I’ll be intrigued to see who he picks for England’s World Cup campaign.