England coach Bennett names 31-man Elite Performance Squad

Danny Houghton, Jamie Shaul and Mike McMeeken have been named in England’s 31-man Elite Performance Squad.

The trio have been selected by Wayne Bennett to participate in six training sessions during the course of the season as preparations for the World Cup at the end of the year pick up pace.

The players selected will be invited to six training sessions during the course of the season, with the first to take place on Monday, February 27.

Houghton’s inclusion follows Bennett’s decision to leave him out of last year’s unsuccessful Four Nations campaign, despite winning the Man Of Steel. The 28-year-old was the most high-profile player to be left out of Bennett’s squad last year, while Hull FC teammate Shaul was also a notable absentee in Bennett’s first squad.

Shaul enjoyed his best year to date in 2016, but missed out on an international call-up, with St Helens’ Jonny Lomax picked instead.

McMeeken’s presence in the squad is perhaps the most surprising. The 22-year-old was one of Super League’s biggest improvers last season, impressing in his 23 Castleford appearances. However, England’s long list of talent in the back-row, most notably in the shape of Ben Currie, John Bateman and Brett Ferres, means his inclusion is somewhat unexpected.

Basingstoke-born, McMeeken started his career with London Broncos before joining Castleford following the Broncos’ relegation in 2014.

Bennett said: “What we have put in place for the players is a programme that will enable them to spend required time together in an international environment.

“Our selection includes a mixture of the England-based players from last year’s squad, returning names who have previously been in the programme and some new faces who have been performing in Super League.

“There’s a lot of talented and committed individuals in this group who are well aware that success in a World Cup tournament doesn’t come easy. Preparation is key and we need everyone to be fully focused throughout the year.”

England 31-man Elite Performance Squad is as follows:

Luke Gale (Castleford Tigers)

Zak Hardaker (Castleford Tigers)

Mike McMeeken (Castleford Tigers)

Michael Shenton (Castleford Tigers)

Leroy Cudjoe (Huddersfield Giants)

Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield Giants)

Danny Houghton (Hull FC)

Scott Taylor (Hull FC)

Jamie Shaul (Hull FC)

Brett Ferres (Leeds Rhinos)

Ryan Hall (Leeds Rhinos)

Stevie Ward (Leeds Rhinos)

Kallum Watkins (Leeds Rhinos)

Kyle Amor (St Helens)

Joe Greenwood (St Helens)

Johnny Lomax (St Helens)

Mark Percival (St Helens)

James Roby (St Helens)

Matty Smith* (St Helens)

Kevin Brown (Warrington Wolves)

Daryl Clark (Warrington Wolves)

Mike Cooper (Warrington Wolves)

Ben Currie* (Warrington Wolves)

Chris Hill (Warrington Wolves)

Stefan Ratchford (Warrington Wolves)

John Bateman (Wigan Warriors)

Joe Burgess (Wigan Warriors)

Liam Farrell (Wigan Warriors)

Sean O’Loughlin (Wigan Warriors)

Sam Tomkins* (Wigan Warriors)

George Williams (Wigan Warriors)