England head to Denver for what promises to be a titanic clash with New Zealand on Saturday 23 June.
Wayne Bennett has already named his 19-man squad with uncapped trio Tommy Makinson, Luke Thompson and Jake Connor all included as well as there being a recall for George Burgess after he missed out on the 2017 World Cup. Burgess is one of six England stars – alongside brothers Sam and Tom, Elliott Whitehead, Gareth Widdop and James Graham – currently plying their trade in the NRL. This wealth of experience Down Under could prove vital if England are to overcome a Kiwis side baying for international blood after their less than impressive World Cup.
What Bennett deserves praise for is the fact that he has picked Tommy Makinson, Luke Thompson, Jake Connor and George Burgess because of their current form. All four have so far been instrumental for their sides this year – St Helens, Hull FC and South Sydney Rabbitohs respectively – and all warrant a place in the squad – although Makinson is likely to fall behind the stars of England’s 2017 World Cup, Jermaine McGilvary and Ryan Hall, in the pecking order. But, if Bennett is picking players on form, then surely Saints halfback Danny Richardson deserves to earn a place after a magnificent start to the Super League season as well as Warrington’s Josh Charnley who has scored 16 tries in 12 appearances since making the switch from Rugby Union side Sale Sharks?
This aside, there is still enough quality in the England side to beat New Zealand at the Mile High Stadium. John Bateman, Jonny Lomax and Mark Percival are currently in the form of their lives, whilst James Roby is still as important as ever for St Helens. If the likes of Chris Hill, the Burgess trio and Luke Thompson can speed up the ruck, Roby will have a field day. But, can England find the right halfback combination to exploit any gains that the forwards can make?
Gareth Widdop is playing well for St George in Australia, but George Williams has had an indifferent 2018 for Wigan. Jake Connor and Jonny Lomax have both been operating in the halves in recent months, but whether or not they could replicate their stellar club form at international level remains to be seen. Plus, with Kallum Watkins sidelined for the season with a knee injury, will Bennett once more go with Bateman in the centres as he did so in the World Cup? Is Stefan Ratchford likely to get the nod over Lomax at fullback considering that’s where the Warrington man has played all year? There are so many questions to be asked and before Saturday 23, the answers will remain unknown.
The fixture is, however, perfect preparation for the Autumn Internationals against the same side; it will enable Bennett to measure his team against one that they have not faced since the Four Nations in 2016. With former Wigan boss Michael Maguire at the helm, the Kiwis will be an entirely different proposition to the one that exited the World Cup at the quarter-final stages and England should be wary. Whilst at Wigan in 2010 and 2011, Maguire won the Grand Final and Challenge Cup with his team playing some sparkling rugby league. With the depth of talent in the Kiwis’ squad – the likes of Shaun Johnson and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck spring to mind – England will have their hands full and, with England lacking a consistent halfback duo, a New Zealand side led by Maguire may well be too strong.