The 18th Man: Was England’s brave show enough to lift the spirits?

England players strike a familiar pose against Australia ' but fans were 'encouraged by their performance. NRL photos
England players strike a familiar pose against Australia ' but fans were 'encouraged by their performance. NRL photos
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Our 18th Man panel assesses the World Cup so far…

England’s opening game - same old story or something to build on?

Robert Kenyon: We won’t beat Australia trying to play them at their game. In my opinion Cronk was busted up and his mind was taken off his game early doors, their other half back wasn’t much cop and Billy Slater was having flashbacks about doing his shoulder every time Ryan Hall had the ball. Their 3/4 line was impressive but didn’t carry the fear factor that in years gone by had the likes of Gasnier, Cooper, Inglis, Renouf, Hayne, etc and neither did their halves. In years gone by we can close but we’re beaten by the likes of Lockyer, Johns, Kimmorley, Thurston, Fittler but this Australia team wasn’t a patch on those, they were there for the taking in my opinion.

As always they controlled the ruck, we were a lot better this year than years gone by as we weren’t always left with defenders still on the floor as they played the ball. Elliot Whitehead was slow to get up off the floor on numerous occasions in that regard.

Bateman handled himself well at centre but I’d have preferred to have played Percival. Playing Bateman was us going for safety trying to prevent tries rather than score them.

Jon Lyon: Overall I was disappointed with England. There were a few positives, Jermaine McGillvary was outstanding with Ryan Hall not far behind, and our goal line defence was much improved. We still don’t offer enough in attack. The kicking game of both Widdop and Gale was very poor and we don’t seem able to find a cutting edge.

David Bailey: England fronted up ok against the Aussies, but in order to beat them we need to have at least half the team giving an 8/10 performance (particularly the halves, hooker and forwards to dominate) as well as hoping the Aussies have an off day. Of course it’s not the end of the world (or unanticipated) that England will have to travel the difficult route, but I can’t see where England will overcome the Aussies, or even the Kiwis in the latter stages of the tournament.

Particularly if there is no change to the team or tactics. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result and that’s sadly the case for England at this early stage.

Darren Wrudd: The opening game from England was half expected if not wanted. Wayne Bennett stating that a close loss would be ‘good enough’ really lifts the spirits doesn’t it? But Sean O’Loughlin said it all, we will get better. I would rather peak in the final than the opener. Australia at times looked tired and disorganised, not the slick outfit we all come to expect, perhaps their reign is coming to an end – we shall see.

Ben Reid: A bit of both really - but since I’m a half glass full type of guy, I’d like to lean towards the latter. I thought we were superb against the Aussies, and showed some real passion and desire to get the win. The only thing we lacked was a real cutting edge in attack. We were unlucky to lose by so many in the end. A late interception and four points from very soft penalties. Let’s beat them when it matters - in the Final!

Wayne Bennett has kept the faith with the players – would you have liked to have seen more changes?

Robert Kenyon: Luke Gale did better than last year but I’d have loved to have seen George Williams in his place scaring the life out of the Aussies because that’s what we need. We need a more mobile pack if we face the Aussies again. I’d also have Percival in for Bateman as he is better at going forward. I’d give Roby more game time and look at Ratchford replacing Lomax, Lomax has never done anything in a game which has made me sit up and take notice but I’m keen to be enlightened to what Bennett sees in him. I’m not too sure Ratchford could do a better job than Lomax though, both a decent players, I think Ratchford should get a chance though.

Jon Lyon: I would definitely like to see George Williams in the side, he has a great running game and more pace than Widdop or Gale, and his short kicking game is outstanding, plus his defence is far better than Luke Gale’s. I would also like to see Mark Percival given a chance at centre, who will offer more than Bateman can out wide, with Bateman at home at second row instead of Currie.

David Bailey: Bennett seems to be stubborn in getting Gale and Widdop to combine (they didn’t) and leaving Bateman at centre and not giving Percival a chance. I mean Williams is the one half we have that will run at the defences and make things happen, an off the cuff half that you can’t really prepare against. He may as well have stayed back and had a pre season with Wigan if he’s not going to be utilised. This is a game we should win so why not give players an opportunity. If he believes that the team against the Aussies was the best 13 available and he will run with them for the remaining group games then we may as well pack up now as I really can’t see us pushing the Aussies or Kiwis with the same set up.

Darren Wrudd: The core of our England squad has got real ability and the one thing the Aussies have is some consistency of personnel. With the odd newbie coming in, it is the best thing to build a squad slowly on good performance and familiarity of playing alongside one another. No big changes required, the quality of player we have is as good as any other team, we just need to gel. Swapping and changing will just hinder that development.

Ben Reid: Not really. I think once he made his choice to not pick George Williams, there’s no going back. The worst thing we can do is keep switching the players up to give them game time and see different partnerships - that’s what friendlies are for. However, I would’ve been tempted to put Mark Percival in the centres and move John Bateman back to the forwards, where he’s best. He didn’t do much wrong against Aussies, it’s just better to play them in their right positions.

Which team impressed you the most from the opening weekend?

Robert Kenyon: PNG’s running style had me hiding behind the couch, they ran like men possessed - it was frightening. Not only that, they had the big uncompromising players and they also had speed and guile in their fullback, David Mead. I can see them doing well and coming fourth in this World Cup.

Jon Lyon: I thought Lebanon were outstanding to win having been pegged back three times by France. The best performance for me was Papua New Guinea. A fantastic atmosphere helped them to an impressive win. Whilst tactical naivety will probably cost them against the top teams, their sheer strength, speed and size make them almost impossible to stop once on a roll. I was starting to wonder what the rule is if a team has more than four players off the pitch for HIA tests at the same time as PNG’s defence was as brutal as their attack.

David Bailey: Well there were a couple of results which caught the eye, Ireland’s win against Italy, Papua New Guinea’s destruction of Wales but for me you can look no further than Lebanon beating France in a historic game. France have lost ground from when they were arguably England’s biggest rivals in the northern hemisphere but they are a huge scalp for Lebanon. We need stories like this to catch the imagination of youngsters in those countries where RL is developing to have any hope of the game flourishing internationally.

Darren Wrudd: I think many will be shocked by the performance of Lebanon. To beat a French side made up largely of familiar players whatever season they have had is an achievement. I think they may struggle against the rest of the group but they do have some good players so disrespect them at your peril. It’s too early to say how each team will progress yet, but they have heart. Fiji however are no surprise and they are going to be a threat again come the playoffs.

Ben Reid: Ireland! I didn’t get much chance to see all the games in their entirety at the weekend, but did catch extended highlights. I think the result alone was enough to make Ireland the team of the weekend. It’s a great start for them, in what’s a tough group. I tell you one thing, as an Ireland player, coach or fan I wouldn’t be panicking too much about their next game against the impressive Papua New Guinea. It’ll be tough, but a test they can only look forward to, rather than worry about the prospect.

What game are you most looking forward to seeing this weekend?

Robert Kenyon: I’m looking forward to seeing PNG v Ireland. Ireland are always my second team in sporting events so I want them to do well and it will be interesting to see whether they fare better than Wales did.

Jon Lyon: With no real standout fixture this weekend I think the Samoa v Tonga clash looks the tastiest. Tonga looked very good in a strong win over Scotland, and Samoa let themselves down in the second half against New Zealand after a promising first 40 minutes, and will be keen to make amends. Let battle commence.

David Bailey: For me there are two intriguing ties this weekend, the pacific island duel between Samoa and Tonga will be a closely fought battle with two sets of islanders putting everything on the line to do their countries proud, but I can’t wait to see how Papua New Guinea fare against Ireland. Ireland had an impressive victory over Italy, but the Kumuls bring something different to the table. They are the only country where RL is recognised as the national sport and their fans are just fanatical. Even as a kid in the 80s there was something magical about watching PNG in their flamboyant yellow red and black strip and both sides will be gunning for a victory and you can only imagine the atmosphere in Port Moresby.

Darren Wrudd: England aside, I cannot decide between Samoa v Tonga, or Ireland v Papua New Guinea as to which will create more fireworks. The south seas provide such huge athletes that the former will certainly be a quest for big hits, but if Michael McIlorum plays for Ireland, watch out PNG – the daddy’s coming to get you. Either game will for sure be a firework display but I hope the Irish do well and give as good as they get from a notoriously aggressive opposition.

Ben Reid: It’s a toss-up between Samoa/Tonga and PNG/Ireland. Both are intriguing affairs for different reasons. The former is going to be a brutal, rough and tough game of rugby league. While the latter is more of a - can Ireland do it, or will PNG continue their impressive form. I don’t think there’s a standout game this weekend, one that really gets you excited, but more games to sit down (or up in bed) and just enjoy.