Our 18th Man Panel assess the World Cup semi-final and look ahead to the 2018 Super League season.
As battle with Tonga draws nearer for a place in the World Cup Final I feel cautiously optimistic. The biggest downfall of England so far is the ability to play for 80 minutes. Numerous times we have had an excellent first half and then taken our foot off the pedal. The way Tonga came from behind against New Zealand shows we just can’t afford to do it again. Surely the prize on offer being so close will focus the players.
Presumably we will stick with the same team. Our forwards should be good enough to contain and eventually dominate the Tonga pack, it’s whether our halves can create enough chances for our rampaging wingers, both of which have been in outstanding form. Personally I’d bring Roby into the team as we’ve consistently looked better with him on the pitch, and bring Williams into the bench for some pace to bring on as the forwards tire. I’m predicting a 16-10 win for England, bring on the Aussies.
Focusing on Wigan’s pre season the noises coming from the training camp are encouraging. Wane seems happy with how pre season is going, and seems to be happy with the strength and fitness work the players have done so far. I’m also happy to hear he is experimenting with the Sams (Tomkins and Powell) and Morgan Escare in the halves to give us extra options in the area we struggled with last year. It also sounds like young Gabriel Hamlin has impressed enough to have a chance of making the first team earlier than expected. With Flower back as well this should be a massive boost to our forward pack.
This week has seen the release of the new home and away shirts. I’ll reserve judgement on the away shirt until I’ve seen it on the players but the home shirt looks a thing of beauty. Crisp, clean, proper stripes and colours and the four stars above the badge representing our four World Club titles. The best kit we’ve had in years.
We weren’t that good against PNG, but had more than enough to get the job done - which is how I thought it would go. They never really threatened us, and we never looked in that much danger of losing the contest. I thought we played alright in patches, but nothing to make the other three sides left in the competition sit up and take notice.
I think it’s clear to see that so far, Australia have been by far the best side in the competition, getting through each game with considerable ease - except the one against us, when they had to work a bit harder. As for Tonga, they’ve been great to watch - but my god did they get out of jail last week.
They weren’t great either, and Lebanon gave them a real scare. However, you’d fancy them to be a completely different package tomorrow. They’ll be right up for this one, as they should – I just hope we finally produce a full 80-minute performance. Whoever wins this game will no doubt be underdogs against the expected winners in the other semi-final.
We’ve had a so-so run to the semi-finals, and it’s now the time to show the world how good we can be. It’ll be tough on Saturday – but more tough for us fans who’ve got that ridiculously early alarm on a weekend. We need an impressive performance and result, so we can storm into the Final and make some history.
As for Wigan, I’m not sure where I stand at the minute when it comes to our 2018 campaign. Like many other Wigan Warriors fans, I’m sort of waiting for a big name signing to really get me excited – but I know it’s not coming. We’d have heard something by now, but I guess with us not losing any big players either, I can’t be too upset, as we’ve a great squad.
It’s great to have a near full squad in pre-season training right now. Except those who are off in Australia for the World Cup, we’ve never had such a big list in so early. To see the likes of Sam Tomkins, Escaré and Flower back in the mix, is just fantastic. It seems we’ll be heading into the new season with just Manfredi on the sidelines.
When I think of the 2018 season, I see us being up there challenging for all the trophies, just like we should. I think sides such as Saints and Warrington will be much better, so we need to pick our own game up. We really need to make a good start the season, and get a few wins under our belt - to build that confidence early doors.
I’m going to finish with what was the best pre-season news to date – they finally released the blooming 2018 home and away shirts. Not only did they release them, but they’re both absolutely superb. I can’t remember loving both shirts so much in the same season, I can say with supreme confidence that I shall be purchasing both for this coming season.
Looking at the World Cup for the moment, it must be said that we are favourites to get to the final even though Tonga are a formidable foe. With some familiar faces amongst their ranks, Tonga bring a blustering, barging attack which will need some seriously committed defence to control. In defence though, they hit hard and scramble really well and deserve their spot in the semi-finals. I do however think that if Wayne Bennett goes for consistency in placements of our own players and in particular the pivots, we will prove too much for them in the end. Kevin Brown showed up really well last week and in the twilight of his career is showing that he still has what it takes to outfox defences, although if Brown fails a late concussion fitness test, I fear the shift of Widdop and inclusion of Lomax will be our undoing. Also Sean O’Loughlin defies his age to show just what a world class player he has become, whilst Luke Gale though has had it easy this year on the back of a well-organised pack at Castleford and he needs to start to create a little space for himself and his players to fully earn his stripes as it were. Our pack speaks for itself and the strength on the bench will no doubt pay dividends this week.
The other semi-final, with Fiji up against the Aussies, is not just as cut and dry as the pundits are predicting. Fiji are a well-organised side with some star players this time around and Australia will disrespect them at their peril. I predict a real upset in that game and can see a superb chance for Fiji to surprise an overconfident opponent and reach a memorable final for them. Now that would be good, especially as I have them at 150 to 1 before the tournament began.
As for domestic footy, our boys are finally getting a full pre-season training regime which too many of them have missed over the last two or three years. I think the prospects are pretty good for 2018 as I do believe there is no need at all for big changes in staff. One thing that stood out to me in the Chairman’s address at the end of season dinner was the acknowledgement that he had previously given Shaun Wane a mandate to win at all costs. This had meant that the style of play had been criticised for not being exciting and he admitted that this was an oversight on his behalf. He asked that people shared their views on this and that as a club, they would listen. I think that in itself is an exciting prospect. That the CEO of a club as prestigious as ours shows just how important it is to them that we fans enjoy our club and game for the spectacle as well as the results, is a wonderful prospect for the coming season. I know that many ideas are being bandied around about expanding the game day experience and I for one have already made sure of our season tickets to ensure we will be there to see it all. It can’t come too soon for me, how about you?
Maybe Wayne Bennett knew what he was doing all along. By the time you read this I would expect Australia will have progressed to the final of the World Cup, and we can sit fingers crossed that England can avoid the potential banana skin that is Tonga.
Whilst not 100 per cent certain of Bennett’s selections, (you can only assume John Bateman is in the centre for his defensive qualities and that’s no disrespect to him as he would always be one of the first names on the team sheet) it seems the players have the belief and confidence and after the topsy turvy nature of the quarter finals, why not?
If England want to win the World Cup, they need to beat Australia, simple as that. If they do then they and Bennett deserve the plaudits that will follow. Tonga will be a tough ask but again after last week’s games, things could be falling in place for England at just the right time. Personally, Australia seem more concerned about the NRL and State of Origin than internationals so it would be fantastic if England can pull it off.
Back at home Wigan unveiled their 2018 kits, a cracking thick hooped home version and an unusual crest pattern away one. With Christmas fast approaching it’s time for the fans to start looking ahead to the new season. Personally, I hope that the key returning players stay fit, that Wigan try a different style to complement the likes of Escare, Williams and Tomkins, and unleash the likes of Burgess, Marshall and Davies. There’s not an awful lot wrong at the Warriors and something will click, and when it does, it could spell big trouble for quite a few teams.