Wayne Bennett began his tenure as England coach with a regulation comfortable win over France in Avignon. His experimental side notched seven tries as they strolled to victory in a downpour that would have been more befitting in England.
The Bennett Effect:
It’s far too early to tell whether the Australian superstar coach will succeed were so many previous England/Great Britain coaches have failed, but there were signs of promise.
With no fewer than six players making their international debut it could easily have gone wrong against what looked like a well organised French team, but it didn’t.
While certain new faces looked little more than solid, rather than making serious plays for the bigger challenges that lie ahead in the 4 Nations, at least they were just that. Too often players at this level can get caught out trying to do the impossible, to make an impression, that didn’t happen here.
The new man at the top has a reputation for being a bit of a father-figure to his players, wherever he’s been in charge, that will be very suited for the international game.
Of the men making their international bows, the ones who stood out were Scott Taylor and Mark Percival. The Hull FC prop ran with great purpose, tested the big French forwards and was unlucky not to get on the score sheet as he was held up once, and another time saw the post get in his way.
St. Helens centre Percival was a constant thorn in the side of the French defence as he caused problems with his pace and kept asking questions as he settled into international rugby league with aplomb.
Castleford Tigers half-back Luke Gale appeared to settle into an effective partnership with Gareth Widdop, whether he has done enough to keep hold of the shirt ahead of people like Wigan Warriors star George Williams remains to be seen, but he certainly didn’t look out of place.
At the back of it all, Saints full-back Johnny Lomax looked comfortable, if not particularly threatening, but again his was a solid debut and he will get better, however a question must remain as to whether Jamie Shaul would have been a better selection?
Another debut man, Stefan Ratchford, must also be involved in that equation, he was another first-timer who made an impression, particularly moving forward in attack.
The recalled Kevin Brown, it must be said, also made something of an impression. He took his try well after a barnstorming run by Taylor created a gap on the edge, and his kick that put Widdop over for a very deserved try also showed some quality as England cut loose towards the end..
In a game that eventually became a comfortable hit-out for England, it seemed clear that certain players have been playing at a higher level than others. Three of England’s 3/4 line have been playing in the Middle 8s, including games against Championship opposition, and yes it showed. Eventually the two wingers got tries, but there was also signs of laxity from them early on.
Without any shadow of a doubt Ryan Hall in previous years would have ended up scoring his first chance, instead he dropped it before getting to the line, when you’re the ‘Worlds best Winger’ you don’t miss chances like that one, no matter how hard they appear.
On the other wing Jermaine McGillvary was quite industrious, but he made more mistakes than we’re used to seeing from such a talented player, it left me wondering if Adam Swift would maybe have been a better choice with his familiarity with Percival and Lomax helping his cause?
Having said that, they, along with Kallum Watkins, will have benefited from the run out, but they will have to improve to make an impression against New Zealand and Australia in particular.
Having fallen behind, deservedly so, early on to an Eloi Pelissier try and Tony Gigot goal, and with Gigot kicking a 40/20, it would have been easy for England, with so many new faces, to panic.
However that didn’t happen as the more senior players like captain-for-the-day James Graham, George and Thomas Burgess and particularly Gareth Widdop, took charge and guided their team through what could have been an awkward game.
England broke the French down and didn’t over-elaborate, they earned the right to play the fancy stuff later on, and when they did, it was effective enough to score 40 points away from home.
With people like John Bateman, George Williams, Liam Farrell, Chris Hill and ‘Slammin’ Sam Burgess still to come into the side, this England side will be a very different proposition, starting next week against New Zealand.
Having said that, England did look somewhat pedestrian at times in this game, which is something that needs cutting out very quickly if Bennett is to make them into serious contenders in the 4 Nations, and moving forward to next year’s World Cup down under.
A winning mentality needs to be bred, Bennett is a master of doing that, and this was a satisfactory start to try and achieve that, only time will tell if he can actually manage it.