With England’s international programme just a few days away, talk is already feverish about the selection dilemmas Steve McNamara has to make this year.
Arguably McNamara’s most competitive and talented squad in years has been assembled for the one-off Test against France and the three-Test series against New Zealand beginning next month.
Whether it’s the much-discussed battle for full-back or even key decisions further down the field, McNamara has some big decisions to make in the next few weeks. Here’s TotalRL.com’s look at his biggest decisions.
Full-back – Sam Tomkins or Zak Hardaker?
The first big call McNamara will have to make is, of course, at full-back. On the one hand you’ve the current No.1 and the man who’s held the position with ease over the past few years: Sam Tomkins. The 26-year-old has had an inconsistent couple of years in the NRL, but will return to Super League next year with Wigan.
However, he faces stiff competition for the full-back berth this year, with Man of Steel and Leeds’ treble-winning man at the back in the form of his life. It has been a 2015 to remember for Zak Hardaker, and it might not be over yet, should McNamara give him the nod at full-back. What’s crucial in this key battle is that whoever doesn’t get put in at full-back, they will likely be played elsewhere in the team.
Tomkins could come from the bench or even start at half-back, whilst Hardaker could take a position in the centres – and with only two recognised centres in Leroy Cudjoe and Kallum Watkins in the squad, is that a clue towards where McNamara is leaning?
Half-back – Matty Smith or Luke Gale?
McNamara openly admitted at his press call at St George’s Park that he desperately wanted to include all four half-backs he’s selected in this year’s squad in his ensemble for the autumn internationals. Matty Smith and Gareth Widdop, like Sam Tomkins, are the current incumbents of their shirts, and will take some nudging out. But whilst George Williams may see this year as an opportunity to get a feel for the international set-up, there’s one man who many believe should be pushing hard for a spot in the halves.
With the assumption that Widdop, as the most experienced of all four halves, is likely to start and finish the series at stand-off barring an injury, that leaves just one slot in the halves up for grabs.
Smith is the man under pressure, with Castleford’s Luke Gale heavily breathing down his beck. Like Hardaker, Gale enjoyed a fine personal season and even won a major accolade of his own – the 2015 Albert Goldthorpe Medal. He was one of the Tigers’ standout men of 2015, and many feel his time to step up to the full senior team is now. Is this McNamara’s biggest call of all?
Second-row – England’s most covered position
With the inevitable discussion about the battles at full-back and half-back, the forwards have slipped under the radar this year.
However, once again England have a wealth of riches in the pack, and it’s in the back row where the toughest calls perhaps need to be made. Ben Westwood will likely act as cover for the props, meaning that John Bateman, Elliott Whitehead, Ben Currie, Brett Ferres and Liam Farrell will be playing for just two starting berths and perhaps one from the bench.
All five have different qualities clearly, but the biggest headache for McNamara is that most of them have been in magnificent form this year. Currie and Bateman have emerged as two of England’s brightest young talents, whilst Farrell and Whitehead have played a key role for Wigan and Catalans respectively in 2015.
Ferres was impressive for England in the Four Nations last year, but has suffered from a lack of game-time in 2015. Still, when he is fit, he is undoubtedly one of England’s best.
Which way will he go?