When it comes to England Rugby League, there is always a selection decision that naturally causes a split in opinion. That is no fault of anyone involved with the setup; it’s just that with so many passionate fans in the game, there is bound to be a difference of opinion somewhere down the line.
But when Steve McNamara named his 24-man squad for the Four Nations, there were few grumbles amongst the Rugby League community about the quality of squad he selected. Of course, there were some men who could be considered unlucky not to make the cut – but there were only 24 spots available on the plane, with a number far exceeding that impressing in Super League (and the NRL) in 2014.
It’s a similar story with the matchday 17; out of all 24 stars who are on the trip, seven in-form men are going to be missing out each and every week. But out of the seven who have not made the cut for the Samoa clash this weekend, is there one in particular who could be incredibly unfortunate to miss out?
So often, England fans demand for the team to be picked on merit. And when you look at names like Daryl Clark, Michael Shenton and Matty Smith, there is little doubting that form has won out when it came to McNamara picking his squad. But in the back row, perhaps the most in-form second-rower in world Rugby League has not been selected – Elliott Whitehead.
Statistics can prompt a difference in opinion; some choose to read into them, whilst some disregard them as unimportant and overhyped in professional sport. No second-row forward has scored more tries in both Super League and the NRL than Whitehead this season; the Catalan forward has been in imperious try-scoring form all season long. He has become one of the Dragons’ most dangerous weapons in little over a year, and it caught many by surprise when he wasn’t selected to play on Saturday.
But it isn’t just his tries tally that makes him an unfortunate absentee for England this weekend – in fact, he brings much more to a Rugby League side than that. Whitehead is one of the hardest working forwards in the game; he sat 11th on the Super League tackles count this year, in front of names like Chris Hill – and just 12 tackles behind the ultimate Rugby League defensive trojan, Jamie Peacock.
He has typified the Catalan spirit all year, and is now nearing the point where he is being regarded as one of the Dragons’ best players. Incidentally, with the likes of Remi Casty and Todd Carney coming on board next year, that Dragons team – and Whitehead – will keep getting better and better. Even without the use of statistics, Whitehead’s performances have been earning rave reviews all season long.
And these sort of stats and performances certainly put him pole position for a spot in the team, and given that this weekend is likely to be England’s weakest test – without suggesting that Samoa will be a pushover, because they won’t – the time to hand Whitehead his England debut could possibly have been this time around.
At the age of 25, Whitehead still has a good decade of top level Rugby League ahead of him, with a large chunk of it surely spent at the very pinnacle of the game – the international arena. But with his form white hot in 2014, the decision not to hand him a spot this weekend – even off the bench – could well be considered a missed trick by England come the end of this tournament.