Two victories for England teams on Saturday came against contrasting opponents.
The French are not thought to be strong enough to provide worthy opposition to England in the men’s game, but they are quickly becoming good enough to give the England Women a strong test.
Instead of France, who would be the ideal opponents if they were thought to be strong enough, England again faced the Combined Nations All Stars, who last year, led by Jackson Hastings, had gained a 26-24 victory over Shaun Wane’s team.
This year the All Stars team didn’t look as strong and so it proved. With no representation from the top four clubs in Super League they lacked a cutting edge.
And, as always in this sort of context, it was strange to see Daryl Clark and Kruise Leeming turning out for England’s opponents.
Nonetheless it was a worthwhile game from England’s point of view, even if it was disappointing to see a stadium that was less than full.
Despite all that, I thought there were some big successes for England on the day.
And the biggest of them was George Williams.
In my ‘Talking Rugby League’ column last week I selected an England side that excluded Williams because of his poor club form for Warrington, instead suggesting that Wigan’s Harry Smith was more deserving of an opportunity.
Shaun completely ignored that advice and went for Williams. And his judgement was fully vindicated.
George was a different player to the one we have seen performing for Warrington this season. Against Leeds Rhinos a couple of weeks earlier, his kicking game seemed to be all over the place, but on Saturday he demonstrated that he still has one of the best short kicking games in Rugby League, which was so apparent when he played for Canberra Raiders in the NRL.
He was the outstanding success story of the game. But there were plenty of others.
John Bateman was also back to his best and not just because of the outstanding try he created for Williams in the first half, nor because of the try he scored early in the second half in the face of a two-man tackle. He hasn’t always been at his best for Wigan since returning from the NRL, but, like Williams, there has never been any doubt about his quality when given his head, as he was on Saturday.
I was surprised to see Shaun select Joe Wardle at left centre in a season that hasn’t been easy for the young Giants’ star, but again it was a decision that was fully justified by his performance.
And what a player Tommy Makinson is!
His tackle on Rhyse Martin in the 78th minute to stop him scoring in the corner, when he came from the other side of the field to pull it off, was an undoubted highlight of the game.
Shaun did select Kallum Watkins and Mike McMeeken, neither of whom featured in the squad he announced in March, and both players did well enough to remain in the squad, even though Kallum hasn’t been playing in the centre for Salford this season.
When you think of all those who didn’t play for England, including the players currently in the NRL, it looks to me as though Shaun has a reasonable squad to put together for the World Cup.
The England Women are in roughly the same boat.
I was delighted to see the improvement made by the French women from last season’s game in France, while the English were still too strong for their opponents.
England have some real power in their team, particularly with a centre like Amy Hardcastle, who is so strong, while I thought England’s first try by Hollie Dodd was beautifully created. And what a good fullback she is.
The problem for the women’s teams of both countries was that they were each selected from just three clubs – in England’s case the big three of St Helens, Leeds and York.
If the women’s game is to progress in the future, we need more teams able to challenge those three while producing international players.
But in terms of entertainment value, the women’s game is already in tremendous shape.
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