League Express editor MARTYN SADLER looks ahead with anticipation to tonight’s historic Test match in Denver.
Is this going to be the biggest game in the history of Rugby League?
It may seem a silly question to ask, especially when you think that a State of Origin match is taking place in Sydney this weekend, for the first time ever on a Sunday.
But there are two ways to look at England’s clash with the Kiwis in Denver.
In the short term it is simply a match between two leading Rugby League nations and the result is important, as it always is in international matches.
In the longer term, however, the game has far greater significance.
With the 2025 World Cup set to be played in the United States, this could be the game that confirms that a significant part of Rugby League’s future lies across the Atlantic. If the local audience clearly enjoys the game that unfolds before its eyes, then we will be so much nearer to the dream of Rugby League finding a new home in the American continent.
So let’s look at the game itself first as a contest.
Wayne Bennett has named an experienced side with just two uncapped players – Tommy Makinson and Jake Connor – on the bench. With George Williams injured, he has gone with Jonny Lomax at stand-off, Stefan Ratchford at fullback and John Bateman at right centre to replace the injured Kallum Watkins.
He has gone with three starting forwards from this year’s NRL competition in Sam Burgess, Elliott Whitehead and James Graham, while Gareth Widdop will play at scrum-half.
Bennett’s bench includes two forwards, in Tom Burgess and Scott Taylor, who was a late call-up after George Burgess pulled out, while he also has Tommy Makinson and Jake Connor on interchange duty.
I’m amazed that he has only two forwards on the bench, given the problems of playing at altitude. Luke Thompson looks to me to be desperately unlucky to be the only fit player who is left kicking his heels, while there is no one on the bench who can obviously replace James Roby at hooker if the Saints star is either injured or needs replacing at any point in the game. Roby is well known for his amazing aerobic capacity, but I wonder whether even he will be able to last 80 minutes at this level of altitude.
In contrast New Zealand coach Michael Maguire has named seven debutants, but he has named four forwards on the bench. His halfback combination of Te Maire Martin and Kode Nikorima is a new combination, given the absence of former Golden Boot winner Shaun Johnson, and it has to be a potential weakness in the Kiwi team.
The battle among the forwards will be crucial, as always, and the Kiwis have some strong young players who will be hoping to make a mark, with Nelson Asofa-Solomona perhaps the most notable, while Martin Taupau is a player who always catches my eye at international level.
The Kiwis had a very disappointing World Cup tournament last year, but it would be unwise to assume that they won’t bounce back, particularly under Maguire, who will be keen to get his international coaching career off with a win.
In a second article, to be posted later this afternoon, I’ll consider the longer term ramifications of this game as we look towards what is hopefully a bright future in America.
Tonight’s teams (debutants asterisked)
1. Stefan Ratchford (Warrington Wolves)
2. Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield Giants)
3. John Bateman (Wigan Warriors)
4. Mark Percival (St Helens)
5. Ryan Hall (Leeds Rhinos)
6. Jonny Lomax (St Helens)
7. Gareth Widdop (St George Illawarra Dragons)
8. Chris Hill (Warrington Wolves)
9. James Roby (St Helens)
10. James Graham (St George Illawarra Dragons)
11. Sam Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
12. Elliott Whitehead (Canberra Raiders, West Bowling) Caps: 15 (4 tries)
13. Sean O’Loughlin (c) (Wigan Warriors)
14. Jake Connor* (Hull FC)
15. Thomas Burgess (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
16. Tommy Makinson* (St Helens)
17. Scott Taylor (Hull FC)
1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Penrith Panthers)
2. Jamayne Isaako* (Brisbane Broncos)
3. Esan Marsters* (Wests Tigers)
4. Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors)
5. Ken Maumalo* (New Zealand Warriors)
6. Te Maire Martin (North Queensland Cowboys)
7. Kodi Nikorima (Brisbane Broncos)
8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Sydney Roosters)
9. Issac Luke (New Zealand Warriors)
10 Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Melbourne Storm)
11. James Fisher-Harris (Penrith Panthers)
12. Joseph Tapine (Canberra Raiders)
13. Martin Taupau (Manly Sea Eagles)
14. Slade Griffin* (North Queensland Cowboys)
15. Raymond Faitala-Marriner* (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
16. Herman Ese’ese* (Newcastle Knights)
17. Leeson Ah Mau* (St George Illawarra Dragons
A full report, photos and analysis from the Denver Test match will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express.