This is my pick for the England team for the first Test against the Kiwis on Saturday.
1 SAM TOMKINS
Sam has had an outstanding year and was brilliant in the Grand Final. He is a different sort of player to the one who burst onto the scene all those years ago, but in many ways is perhaps a more rounded player now. He is a top-class player and should be the England fullback ahead of Stefan Ratchford.
2 JERMAINE McGILLVARY
Jermaine was sensational in the World Cup and will be aiming to make the same impression against the Kiwis. He is the perfect winger at this level. He scores tries, he takes us forward and few get the better of him. The Kiwis will have to do plenty of homework to contain him.
3 OLIVER GILDART
Oliver is a quality centre, as he demonstrated in setting up the first Wigan try in the Grand Final. Watch the footwork – unfortunately, that is becoming a rarity in English centres. He’s got everything a centre needs and should have gone to the World Cup last year. He’s a top-class player in attack and defence.
4 MARK PERCIVAL
I’m a big fan of his and on his day, he is the best centre in Super League. He’s a good winger’s man and there’s barely a weakness in his game. These two could be the England centre pairing for years to come but they will have their hands full with Joseph Manu.
5 TOM JOHNSTONE
What an international debut he made on Wednesday! It may have only been France, but scoring three tries, especially in such rapid fire, shows exactly what he can do. Wakefield have a real asset on their hands and it will be interesting to see how long they can keep hold of him for.
6 GEORGE WILLIAMS
He’s had a great season for Wigan and is easily the best option we have to play stand-off. A couple of years ago, I said we should give him the jersey for a decade, but he dipped for a while last year. That can happen to young players, but Wigan have been more expansive this year and it’s benefited George.
7 JAKE CONNOR
We lack a bit of quality in the backs, but Jake will give us something different. He can play in the halves or in the centres and he will do a great job wherever he is. We need him most in the halves and maybe it will be the start of something special in a position we badly need some flair. He has some x-factor about him and he can make a difference.
8 JAMES GRAHAM
The man is a warrior and every time I see him play, my admiration for him grows. I think it’s great James hasn’t retired from internationals. He’ll probably carry on for as long as he can. He’s still a great prop as he showed in his debut year for St George-Illawarra.
9 JOSH HODGSON
It’s great to see Josh recover from his injury because some appeared to have written 2018 off for him. He did well for Canberra when he came back but I hope he doesn’t try to do too much, like he did last year when Luke Gale’s game suffered as a result.
10 CHRIS HILL
Chris is a machine who always does a great job for England. He’s one of the few forwards who doesn’t play in the NRL, but he’s up there with any of them. He’s come off a big season, helping Warrington to two finals, and I see no reason why he won’t have a very good series.
11 JOHN BATEMAN
Wayne Bennett simply must play John in the second row where he’s one of the best in the world and not waste him in the centres again. He has been exceptional for Wigan this year, so consistently playing above his weight. I can’t wait to see him in the NRL.
12 ELLIOTT WHITEHEAD
Elliott is another forward who we are lucky to have. He is world class running out wide, where he always creates havoc. He’s been brilliant in the NRL and he regularly takes his club form onto the international stage.
13 SEAN O’LOUGHLIN (c)
I think in the past I’ve written Sean off at this level, but I’m happy to admit I’m glad we still have him. Wigan are so much better when he’s on the field and England will need a big series from the skipper if they are going to prevail.
14 TOM BURGESS
Tom’s try against France shows what a handful he is close to the line. He was very good in last year’s World Cup. He’s come through a difficult period in his career and is up there in the top category of props worldwide.
15 GEORGE BURGESS
I’m sure he’ll revert to his usual role after playing at the back of the scrum against the French. Like Tom, he wobbled a bit after his Grand Final success in 2014 but he’s had a brilliant season for Souths in 2018 and he’ll be up for a huge series, especially after missing the World Cup.
16 JONNY LOMAX
Many would choose another forward on the bench, but our second rowers should be able to do the full 80, and twins could cover the back row if needed. It’s important to have a utility option, in case of injury. Jonny can cover fullback, halves and even centre.
17 DARYL CLARK
Daryl’s back to his England best and will be a great impact player from the bench. Wayne has never come across as his biggest fan but I’m confident Daryl will pose the Kiwis some problems when he comes onto the field.
The series is shaping up to be absolutely mouthwatering.
Michael Maguire has put the pride back into the Kiwi jersey and they caused a big surprise by turning over the Australians.
If they maintain that level, England are going to have to play the best football they have produced for many years to win the series.
I was very impressed by many of the Kiwis, especially the new hooker, Brandon Smith. I loved his emotion before the game – that’s how much Test football should mean.
The backs, in particular Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Joseph Manu and Shaun Johnson, will cause all sorts of problems and I’m not sure our backs can match them.
If Johnson is in the mood, it will be a great series. People go to watch Rugby League because of people like him. He will make life tough for England.
One obvious advantage the tourists have over England is they are coming off a blood-and-thunder match against the Aussies, whereas we had a training run against France.
They will also have had over a week to get over the flight.
But I do think England will win the first Test.
I love the look of the England forwards. We have a world-class pack and we still have enough class behind the scrum in Tomkins and Connor to get the job done
I’ll stick my neck out and go for a 2-1 series win for England.
Best of luck, boys!