A new era, with a new, superstar, coach was meant to usher in a new mentality, and possibly new success for England RL, but with much the same personnel on the field, that now looks increasingly unlikely.
Many people questioned Wayne Bennett’s squad selection, myself included, and those questions certainly weren’t given a satisfactory answer at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Genuine grunt, with a lack of guile?
The overpowering feeling about this game was that it was two big sides, with monster packs of forwards, looking to bash each other into submission. But David Kidwell’s Kiwis had more than just grunt, they had raw pace and a cutting edge that taunted England. What they also had was the mercurial Shaun Johnson who, despite not having a half back partner to speak of after Thomas Leuluai left the field, made the England pairing of Gareth Widdop and Luke Gale look pedestrian at best.
In Jordan Rapana, Jordan Kahu and Jason Nightingale, as well as Johnson, they had genuine speed, which looked dangerous every time they attacked. Kallum Watkind was anonymous and Dan Sarginson made basic errors, including one with the try line open in front of him. Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall on the wings both got on the score sheet, but offered nothing really different.
England tried too much ‘Give it to the big man’ and New Zealand, who were no world beaters, found it too easy to deal with. As good as Jonny Lomax is, he offered no threat to a well-drilled Kiwi defence. This defence was so organised that even 2014 Man of Steel Daryl Clark was unable to make much of an impression when he came on at what is perceived to be the best time for him to come on, when an opposition are supposed to be tiring.
New Zealand had this in spades, due mainly to that man Johnson, while England looked a bit desperate and rudderless, with no-one really taking control of proceedings, while players like Johnson, Issac Luke and Jason Taumalolo were left with far too much time on the ball, if England allow men like Johnathon Thurston, Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis that sort of time and space, it could be very embarrassing.
The sooner that Gareth Widdop is dropped the better, he’s a very good goal-kicker, but his only telling contribution against the Kiwis was a flick pass that put Ryan Hall in at the corner, England are crying out for George Williams, a running half-back who constantly asks questions of defenders and offers something different to the structures that teams play to.
Josh Hodgson is, on his day, a very good game manager as he has proved in the NRL and Super League, unfortunately he was also somewhat in the shadows opposite an illustrious opponent, as Issac Luke moved his team around the park, while Hodgson produced some quality like the bullet pass to James Graham that saw the former Saints man rightly denied a try for a double movement, but there weren’t anywhere near enough of those moments from the Canberra Raiders hooker.
Good about England?
You couldn’t fault the effort of the lads in red and white, they kept turning up for each other, defending heroically at times, none more so than when Lomax denied the Kiwis a try with a desperate lunge to knock the ball dead.
When they did play attacking football, they looked menacing in patches, the tries for McGillvary and Hall were of a genuine quality and took some scoring, and the likes of Chris Hill, Elliott Whitehead and Sam Burgess were industrious and did cause New Zealand problems on occasion, while the likes of Gale and Lomax in particular, tried their best when called upon.
Failings on both sides
If you’re Mal Meninga or Cameron Smith, or anybody else in the Australia team, you’ve watched this with a big grin on your face, expecting to win this tournament and reclaim you number 1 spot in the World Rankings at the final at Anfield.
Australia taught New Zealand a rugby league lesson twice this year, including a comfortable 26-6 win a few weeks ago, and on this form from the Kiwis, they’ll be confident of doing so again in Coventry. Even more comforting for the Green and Gold machine is the fact that a week after that, they’ll play England and a thumping win for Australia is the only conceivable outcome, unless something quite astonishing happens and Wayne Bennett fashions his team into genuine challengers in a fortnight.
Both kicking games were rank bad today, even despite New Zealand forcing a very impressive seven goal line drop outs from England, while discipline must be another concern for both coaches, as an alarming amount of penalties were conceded on both sides, particularly in the first half, amounts of which Australia will absolutely no doubt take full advantage.
In conclusion, England need a team with more pace, guile and running threat, along with better communication and game management, and until they do, they’re not going to be anywhere near good enough to even challenge Australia.
The Kiwis have a bit more about them than England, but while they are very organised, they do need more fluidity and more men to put their hands up to make the hard yards and push through into a gap, they did just enough against England, and not much more, frankly they were there for the taking, by a better team than England.