In the fourth of his exclusive World Cup columns, former Wigan and GB centre Martin Gleeson looks ahead to England’s opening game...
Can England beat Australia? Of course they can.
They’ve got some really good players in their squad, and the best chance to catch the Aussies cold is at the start of a tournament.
But Wayne Bennett’s men are really going to have to play really, really well.
Most of his squad have never beaten the Aussies; I’m not sure whether that will be in the players’ minds or not.
If so, they can take some comfort from having pushed them close over the years, and lessons about what has ultimately cost them far too many times – their own errors.
Last year, they failed to find touch from penalties – twice. Mistakes like that are criminal.
Any errors, or lapses in concentration, will be punished.
You can almost guarantee Australia will get stronger as the game goes on; in the first-half they often feel their way into the game.
And so, while England need to be all-guns-blazing early on, they also need to make sure they improve as the match unfolds.
They will need to get tighter – I don’t want to say be boring, but maybe rein it in a little bit, and be as close to error-free as they can be.
Later in the game, the concentration levels, field position and errors could prove crucial.
It’s only the first match of the tournament, but it’s an important game.
Whoever wins this should get what would appear a smoother route to the final. But a victory for England would mean much more than that. Beating the Aussies would give the World Cup holders something to think about – it would put out a huge statement. And it would make the fans over there take note.
Their media and supporters won’t rate England. They’ll rate some players, but not the side.
They’ll expect England to give them a game for a while and then drop off – they can be quite arrogant about it, but history has shaped that view.
This is a great chance to make people sit up, and nothing will make them believe they can go on and be successful like beating the Aussies in the opening match.
It will depend on them playing well – and Bennett picking the right side.
In the warm-up game last Friday, he tried both Ben Currie and John Bateman in the centre roles, and Mark Percival on the wing.
I think it would be a mistake to put a forward at centre, especially against such quality opposition.
Currie, for example, is a talent, no doubt, but he’s back-rower who is not match-sharp, not match-fit, and not used to playing in the three-quarters.
The Aussies would be licking their lips.
Defending at centre is completely different, because you need to deal with three players at once – you need to think super-quick, and react to that. Those skills are honed from playing in that position week after week, like Percy does at St Helens.
Bateman has been listed in the centre role in the 21-man squad.
The other interesting area is halfback, and who Bennett will pick to partner Gareth Widdop, who was the Dally M half of the year.
George Williams has been left out of the squad, and while Luke Gale is listed to start, Kevin Brown is also an option.
Kev’s not had a great first season with Warrington, and some may have questioned his selection in the squad at all.
But he started against the Green and Gold last year, and I wasn’t surprised Kev was picked in the trimmed-down squad ahead of George.
I don’t think Warrington’s style – very ad hoc and improvised – suits his game. He’s at his best when teams are attacking with different shape around him.
Some players are suited to play different styles, and Kev’s good at setting the plays up and picking the right passes.
Elsewhere, I’ve previously mentioned how I expect Tonga to really challenge the ‘big three’ this year, and I expect they’ll be too strong for a Scotland side which may struggle to emulate their Four Nations form.
There will be some interesting match-ups in the group rounds. If it’s anything like the last World Cup, we’re in for a cracker.
Wigan legend Shaun Edwards will be the special guest at a dinner to mark Martin Gleeson’s testimonial at the AJ Bell Stadium on October 28. For details call 07950 531253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org