In just over three weeks, a year-long itch for international Rugby League will be scratched in style when Australia face New Zealand and England take on Samoa at the Suncorp Stadium to kick off the 2014 Four Nations tournament.
It’s the moment most of us have been waiting for all year and it’s going to be fascinating to see how England get on, especially without Sam Burgess.
Even though the hole union-bound Burgess has left in the squad is substantial, you could argue this competition represents England’s best chance of winning silverware in recent memory.
That’s not to say we are favourites – far from it – but both Australia and New Zealand are set to be less of a handful than they were at RLWC2013.
Indeed, a raft of stars including Billy Slater and Paul Gallen are missing for the Kangaroos while Sonny Bill Williams is going the way of Sam Burgess. Additionally, Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney picked several youngsters in his most recent squad, presumably with one eye on the next World Cup.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s an opportunity for McNamara and his men, and the onus is now on the coach to bring together the strongest team possible. But who exactly should he pick for the curtain-raiser against Samoa?
I’ve put together what I believe to be the strongest starting 17 for that match. Do you agree with my selections? Share your thoughts by joining in the debate on social media or our free fans’ forum.
Why? Filling the full-back spot is arguably the toughest decision McNamara has to make. Sam Tomkins is still our most proven number one, but the truth is he is quite vulnerable in defence, especially under the high ball. Hardaker, on the other hand, has been a rock at the back for Leeds and his highlight reel this season will be packed with try-saving tackles and calm, high-ball collections. He perhaps lacks Tomkins’ attacking flair but is still extremely useful going forward. All-round, this seemed like the right decision.
Key 2014 stats: 3,254 metres gained; 8 tries; 13 try assists; 11 clean breaks; 103 tackle busts
Why? An absolute no-brainer. Strong, quick, positionally excellent, great vision and can defend. He’s a complete winger and one of the first names on the team sheet.
Key stats: 16 tries; 4 try assists; 3,190 metres gained; 86 tackle busts; 18 clean breaks
Why? One of 2014’s stand-out centres, Shenton finished the season as Castleford’s joint top try-scorer and was consistently good throughout the campaign. With everyone fit he’s probably third choice but Jack Reed’s injury should give him an opportunity to add to his eight England caps.
Key stats: 17 tries; 17 try assists; 2,431 metres; 22 clean breaks; 55 tackle busts
Why? He’s the best centre in England and the only Super League player to appear in all three 2014 Dream Teams. Fast, strong and a good finisher, he has it all.
Key stats: 12 tries; 16 try assists; 2,684 metres; 22 clean breaks; 80 tackle busts
Why? Many will question this decision as Charnley has been both publicly criticised and dropped by coach Shaun Wane this year. Indeed, he played just 16 times in the regular season but scored an impressive 19 tries. If McNamara picks on form – and he should – Charnley has to be included.
Key stats: 19 tries; 2 try assists; 37 tackle busts; 18 clean breaks
St George-Illawarra Dragons
Why? He’s the best English-born half-back at McNamara’s disposal, without a doubt. Had he played throughout the RLWC2013 campaign, you can’t help but think the team could have gone further. He’s been extremely impressive alongside Benji Marshall this season and was voted the best NRL signing of 2014 in a fan poll. He’s also a superb kicker.
Key stats: 3 tries; 61 goals; 1,367 metres; 3 field-goals
New Zealand Warriors
Why? He may not be, in my opinion at least, the safest choice at full-back, but there’s no doubting Sam Tomkins has to be in the England side. Going forward, there are few better in the world. I decided to pick him in the halves as I believe his handling skills and vision make him ideal for the job, plus he has experience in the playmaker role from his time at Wigan. Matty Smith will surely feel hard done by but, for me, this will make the team stronger.
Key stats: 13 tries; 2,827 metres; 135 tackles
Why? He’s just won the Dally M front-rower of the year award, which basically means he’s the best prop on the planet. Enough said.
Key stats: 4 tries; 847 tackles; 3,402 metres; 344 hit-ups
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Why? There are growing calls for Castleford’s Daryl Clark to start at hooker, but for me Roby is still in a league of his own. His stats this year are nothing short of phenomenal and he is on the Man of Steel shortlist. On performance alone it’s an award he should win comfortably. He goes about his business quietly but there’s no doubting he’s one of the hardest workers in the game and is our strongest option at nine.
Key stats: 7 tries; 20 try assists; 1,054 tackles (only 35 misses); 509 carries; 2,980 metres; 10 clean breaks; 62 tackle busts; 420 runs from dummy half
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Why? He’s no stranger to a penalty but possesses the same barnstorming combination of power and speed that brother Sam makes a living off. He’s been a revelation in 2014, starting the majority of games for South Sydney and helping them to Sunday’s NRL Grand Final. He’s world class already and will only get better.
Key stats: 2 tries; 559 tackles; 2,857 metres; 238 hit-ups
Why? He’s a complete player – solid in defence, useful going forward, and extremely hard-working. He missed only 12 tackles all year and had a hand in 16 tries. He just edges it for me over the likes of Brett Ferres, John Bateman and Mike Cooper.
Key stats: 12 tries; 4 try assists; 17 clean breaks; 2,608 metres; 579 tackles’ 53 tackle busts
Why? If this former Bradford star isn’t in McNamara’s squad he will feel extremely hard done by. Arguably the best back-rower in Super League this season, Whitehead has been terrorising defences out wide and seemingly scoring at will.
Key stats: 18 tries; 5 try assists; 768 tackles; 17 clean breaks’ 59 tackle busts; 67 missed tackles
Sean O’Loughlin (captain)
Why? He is possibly the most influential player in Super League. With him, Wigan look complete; without him, they’re just not the same. He only managed to play 17 games this season but still proved he’s the best we have in this position. Should captain the side.
Key stats: 7 tries; 8 try assists; 480 tackles; 1,441 metres; 24 tackle busts; 3 clean breaks
Why? What do you get if you mix electric pace with a real eye for a gap? Tackle busts. And that’s what Daryl Clark specialises in. The Warrington-bound hooker has been one of Super League’s stand-out players in 2014 and is the natural successor to fellow Man of Steel contender James Roby. He isn’t quite at the Saints stalwart’s level just yet but, off the bench, will provide a real injection of speed that could change a game.
Key stats: 13 tries; 10 try assists; 691 tackles; 2,920 metres; 24 clean breaks; 96 tackle busts
Why? One of the best attacking forwards at McNamara’s disposal, Ferres made more offloads than anyone else in Super League this year. His ability to inject momentum into a game is invaluable and the experience he gained at last year’s World Cup – and the great performances he put in – will surely make him a serious contender to start. For me, though, he makes a superb option off the bench.
Key stats: 8 tries; 13 try assists; 471 tackles; 1,846 metres; 58 offloads
Why? The first three props in this side picked themselves, but the final spot is a tough one to call. The likes of Craig Huby, Kyle Amor, Tom Burgess and Andy Lynch certainly merit a call-up, as does Mike Cooper, but, for me, Walmsley will prove to be a bigger handful for opposition defences.
Key stats: 2 tries; 270 carries; 2,288 metres; 57 tackle busts
Why? One of the best forwards in the league this season, Hill has consistently provided the Warrington playmakers with a platform on which to attack. His ability to eat up the metres is almost unheard of (only Matty Russell made more out of anyone in Super League) and he is unbelievably reliable in defence, missing only 14 tackles all season. It’s easy to see why he’s on the Man of Steel shortlist.
Key stats: 5 tries; 5 try assists; 740 tackles; 432 carries; 3,258 metres; 10 clean breaks; 33 tackle busts
1 Zak Hardaker
2 Josh Charnley
3 Kallum Watkins
4 Michael Shenton
5 Ryan Hall
6 Gareth Widdop
7 Sam Tomkins
8 George Burgess
9 James Roby
10 James Graham
11 Elliott Whitehead
12 Liam Farrell
13 Sean O’Loughlin
14 Daryl Clark
15 Brett Ferres
16 Alex Walmsley
17 Chris Hill
Notables who missed out
Smith has certainly played well enough this season to earn England’s number seven shirt but my choice to bring Hardaker in at full-back meant he had to be sacrificed.
Impossible to argue he isn’t one of the division’s most effective attackers, but hard to see him coping defensively at international level. Not sure I would take him.
Like Brown, possesses great attacking flair but little defensive mettle. One for the future.
Was close to edging out Charnley but his form has dipped since his early season brilliance. Should be on the plane.
Hasn’t been consistent enough to get anywhere near the England starting lineup, if you ask me. He has showed flashes of great form but not enough to force his way into the reckoning this time.
With Jack Reed out of the picture, I’d have Wardle as my third-choice centre. Had a superb season and deserves a chance.
A solid season that seemed to fizzle out slightly towards the end. It will probably between him and Briscoe for the last back-up winger spot.
Josh Hodgson (Hull KR), Shaun Lunt (Huddersfield Giants) and Danny Houghton (Hull FC)
These three couldn’t do much more, but they’re fighting out for the most competitive spot in the side. None of them possess the all-round brilliance of Roby or the ability to get the team on the front foot as quickly as Clark.
Undoubtedly has the class but perhaps the competition comes a bit too soon, following his return from rugby union.