Gareth Widdop has backed the bold selection of George Williams as his new England half-back partner.
The 20-year-old Williams, Super League’s young player of the year, has displaced his Wigan team-mate Matty Smith and will be one of four debutants when Steve McNamara’s men kick off their autumn international campaign against France at Leigh Sports Village on Saturday afternoon.
“He’s obviously had a great season in Super League,” said Widdop. “He’s a good, young kid and everybody has got a lot of raps on him.
“He’s a very strong ball runner. He’s excited by the opportunity he’s got and I’m looking forward to playing alongside him.”
Wigan coach Shaun Wane gave the academy international a huge vote of confidence at the start of the season by handing him Blake Green’s number six jersey but had suggested six weeks ago that an England call-up now might be too soon.
Williams admits he was surprised to get the call but insists he is ready to make the bold step up to senior international level.
“I can see where Waney was coming from, he wants the best for me and the best for Wigan in years to come,” Williams said.
“But 100 per cent I want to play. Representing your country is a dream of mine, it’s every young lad’s dream to play for England, although I’ll be honest, I never thought this opportunity would have come so quickly.”
Williams will make his bow alongside club-mate John Bateman, a specialist back rower who looks set to get the nod at centre ahead of Huddersfield’s Leroy Cudjoe after impressing in the role for the Warriors during the last three months of the season.
The other new faces are winger Joe Burgess and prop Mike Cooper, who get their chances after being unused members of McNamara’s 2014 Four Nations squad.
England arranged Saturday’s fixture to aid their preparations for the three-match Test series against New Zealand, which starts in Hull on Sunday week, but have maintained its importance with caps at stake.
Widdop said: “It’s a Test match so we want to be going out there and be putting a performance in a getting a win. Saying that, it’s a good opportunity to work on combinations leading into the New Zealand games.”
England are unlikely to experience a repeat of the 15-14 defeat they suffered at the hands of Italy on the eve of their last major tournament on home soil two years ago and, indeed, ought to be comfortable winners over a French team decimated by withdrawals.
Wakefield prop Mickael Simon, who was in the team beaten 34-6 by England in their last meeting in the quarter-finals of the 2013 World Cup, will become Les Tricolours’ third captain in as many matches following the loss of newly-appointed skipper Theo Fages with an abductor strain sustained during his side’s 31-14 win over Ireland in the European Championship last Saturday.
The St Helens-bound scrum-half will be among a dozen absentees against McNamara’s England, including former captains Remi Casty and Jason Baitieri, but coach Richard Agar is confident in the leadership qualities of Simon.
“Mickael has enjoyed a good season in Super League and always plays well for France so it’s fitting reward for his efforts for the national team,” said Agar.
Centre Tony Gigot, who scored two tries against the Irish in Albi, is another injury victim which will mean first senior call-ups for part-time domestic players Olivier Arnaud, Mourad Kriouache and Florent Rouanet.
“We’ve around 12 players unavailable so it will seriously test our strength in depth,” admitted Agar.
“We’ve a lot of starters out and we’ll have quite a number of part-timers so we will have to use every ounce of the enthusiasm they will bring.
“It’s a big thing for the French guys to come up against England and that will be a strong motivating factor.”