#1 – Latest in League – Unbeaten seasons, Widnes, Salford and Toulouse.

Despite a valiant effort in the second half Wigan Warriors unbeaten start to the 2017 Super League season came to an end at the hands of Lee Radford’s Hull FC.

Just a week earlier Castleford’s perfect start to the season also came to a halt after Gareth O’Brien’s drop-goal saw Salford come away with the victory at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Daryl Powell said after the defeat: “People mentioned us going unbeaten for the season – well that’s put an end to that.”

Powell’s comment alongside Wigan’s defeat this past weekend got me considering the idea of an unbeaten league campaign in the world of Rugby League.

I’d almost convinced myself that Wigan would have achieved such a feat during their glory years between 1987-1995 however after some digging around I found out they hadn’t. In fact, no side has ever gone unbeaten in the top tier of British Rugby League.

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Wigan won the Challenge Cup on nine consecutive occasions but never managed an unbeaten season. (Photo: Wigan Warriors)

 

However, it has been achieved in Australia – but not since 1959. South Sydney managed to win every game (12 from 12) in their 1925 campaign while Balmain, North Sydney, East Suburbs, and St George all achieved unbeaten seasons with the East Suburbs managing it in consecutive seasons.

Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm are the only sides who still have perfect records in this year’s NRL however with the quality of the competition, the effect of the State of Origin games, and the golden-point rule it is extremely unlikely a side will ever remain unbeaten for a whole season again.

Hull KR still have a perfect record in the Championship this season with seven wins from seven and if they were to manage an unbeaten season they would match the achievement of their cross-city rivals Hull FC who won the second division in 1978-79 without a loss.

However, KR will have to compete in the qualifiers at the end of the season which means facing four Super League sides reducing the chance of an unbeaten campaign dramatically. Also, going unbeaten in the Championship is no easy task ask the Leigh Centurions who suffered one regular season defeat in each of their last three seasons – Doncaster (2014), London (2015) & Batley (2016).

Toulouse Olympique came close to an unbeaten last year in the Championship One however a defeat to Rochdale Hornets in the play-offs ended their run and emphasised the difficulty of an unbeaten season.

Dewsbury Rams managed to go through the 2009 season in the third-tier without a loss and it looks like it could be in the Championship One where we see an unbeaten season in 2017 with newbies Toronto Wolfpack.

The Wolfpack have already overcome to of the stronger sides in Whitehaven and Keighley as well as knocking Championship side London Broncos out of the Challenge Cup. Toronto could very well go unbeaten this season and it seems more likely that the Canadians will achieve the feat rather than KR.

As mentioned, Salford were the side who ended Castleford’s early season winning streak and they followed that up with a clinical destruction of Widnes at the Select Security Stadium on Friday night.

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Salford destroyed Widnes this past weekend in the Super League. (Photo: Daily Star)

 

A one-sided affair was an indication of the difference in recruitment and club management between two sides who I view as very similar in Salford and Widnes. Both are stereotypically lower-mid Super League sides who competed in the middle-eights last year – with Salford surviving by the skin of their teeth thanks to Gareth O’Brien’s unforgettable drop-goal against Hull KR.

However, Salford have recruited well in pre-season and have put faith in head coach Ian Watson and it is already proving a good decision with the likes of Ben Murdoch-Masila, Lama Tasi, Junior Sa’u and coach Watson all signing new contracts this week.

As for Widnes, it seemed that they thought signing several players to long-term deals following their fantastic start last season would see them through however poor recruitment in pre-season has singled them out as possibly the weakest side in the Super League. Tom Olbison and Tom Armstrong were their only additions over the winter and Dennis Betts failed to replace half-back Kevin Brown which was proved detrimental to the start of their season.

I personally believe Salford have finally got it right with their recruitment and management off the field after years of trying but failing to climb the table but for Widnes it could be a long season with the threat of relegation possible.

I’d like to finish my first ‘Latest in League’ piece talking about Toulouse Olympique who I had the pleasure of watching for the first time this weekend as they defeated Featherstone Rovers at the Big Fellas Stadium.

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Toulouse celebrate their promotion last year. (Photo: Ladepeche.fr)

 

Toulouse returned to British Rugby League at the beginning of last season and earned promotion from League One after winning the league leaders shield before victories over York and Barrow in the play-offs.

Sylvain Houles’ forwards were extremely impressive with the likes of Sebastien Planas, Andrew Bentley, Clement Boyer, and Tyla Hepi causing the Rovers defence all sorts of issues and consistently getting their nose through the defensive line. Olympique’s offload game saw them blitz Featherstone in the early stages going 16-0 up in as many minutes.

In Mark Kheirallah they have an extremely talented full-back, clever halves with Stanislas Robin and Johnathan Ford and the powerhouse winger that is Kuni Minga.

Toulouse, I feel, can fight for promotion in the coming seasons and it will be extremely interesting to see a Super League with two French sides and how that could develop in the future.

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Four Nations 2016: England 16-17 New Zealand – Match Report

Shaun Johnson’s 65th minute drop-goal was the difference at the John Smiths Stadium as New Zealand edged out England.

Ryan Hall’s try following a spectacular pass from Gareth Widdop had pulled England back level along with Widdop’s conversion.

Jordan Rapana crossed for a try in either half and Johnson scored a 75-yard interception in the first minute of the second half to make it a difficult afternoon for Wayne Bennett’s men.

Hometown boy Jermaine McGillvary powered over following Johnson’s try to keep England in the game but the home side never regained the lead once the Kiwis got ahead.

England had set the pace early on as Widdop sank two penalty goals inside the first ten minutes.

New Zealand’s victory means they now sit 2nd in the Four Nations table behind Australia who they face next weekend in the double-header at the Ricoh Arena. England will face Scotland with both sides looking to get off the mark in this year’s competition.

Dave Kidwell named the same Kiwi side that fell to a 26-6 defeat to Australia a fortnight ago.

However, Bennett welcomed back players from both Warrington and Wigan who were rested in England’s 6-40 victory over France last weekend. Luke Gale made his competitive international debut alongside Widdop in the halves while Jonny Lomax was picked at full-back over Stefan Ratchford. Wigan duo Liam Farrell and George Williams missed out.

It was also Sam Burgess’ first Rugby League international since New Zealand knocked England out of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup with Johnson’s last minute try in the semi-finals.

Predicting a tight game England seized the chance to take the lead in the opening minutes when Widdop slotted over a penalty after Kevin Proctor was penalised for holding down. Widdop doubled the lead eight minutes later with another penalty goal.

England continued to control the game and created some chances as McGillvary came close before James Graham had a close-range effort disallowed for a double movement, the correct decision by video referee Bernard Sutton.

The Kiwis got on the scoreboard with ten minutes of the first half remaining as Jordan Kahu converted a penalty after Elliot Whitehead knocked the ball from Isaac Lukes hands. Widdop would miscue the resulting kick-off and punt the ball dead allowing New Zealand to apply pressure to the England line and they took advantage.

Thomas Leuluai, Johnson and Kahu sent the ball through hands with clinical precision and it finally found Rapana who planted the ball down in the corner, Proctors decoy run creating the space. Kahu missed the conversion, however.

In search of a quick response in the early stages of the second half Widdop attempted to throw the ball wide but Johnson read the pass and raced 75-yards, the perfect start to the second forty for New Zealand. Kahu converted.

If Widdop’s passing was slightly off Whitehead’s certainly wasn’t as he helped England get back into the game. The Canberra back-rower’s long pass wide found McGillvary who cut inside and powered over the line in front of his hometown. Widdop converted.

The game began to open up as defences became tired England failed to wrap up the ball and Rapana burst through from the halfway line before rounding Lomax almost effortlessly to score. Kahu hit the post with the conversion.

Midway through the half England pulled themselves level. Gale found Widdop before the St George half-back flicked an outrageous pass over his head and straight into the arms of Hall who, in similar fashion to McGillvary before him, forced his way over. Widdop then converted from the touchline making it 16-16.

With fifteen minutes still left Johnson surprised everyone by kicking a drop-goal from ten metres out to edge the Kiwis back in front and in the end it would prove crucial. Widdop did attempt a drop-goal from 35-yards late on but skewed his effort wide before Sam Burgess dropped the ball in England’s last attacking set.

England: Lomax, McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, S. Burgess.

Interchanges: T. Burgess, G. Burgess, Cooper, Clark.

New Zealand: Kahu, Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich, Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumalolo.

Interchanges: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.

Referee: R. Hicks Touch Judges: J. Child & A. Elliot Video Referee: B. Sutton

Attendance: 24,070.

Four Nations 2016: England vs New Zealand – Preview

Last year England and New Zealand went to battle in a terrific three-game test series which England narrowly won in the final game.

Now, as the Four Nations gets underway the English and the Kiwis are set to do battle again at Huddersfield John Smiths Stadium in what will be a crucial game following Australia’s 54-12 victory over Scotland on Friday.

Team News

Wayne Bennett has chosen Castleford half-back Luke Gale over Wigan’s George Williams after Gale’s debut last weekend in a warm-up game against France. Fellow Wigan

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Gale will start

teammate Liam Farrell has also been left out with Elliot Whitehead and John Bateman occupying the second-row. Jonny Lomax will also start at full-back over Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford.

 

New Zealand aren’t expected to make any changes from the side who lost 26-6 a fortnight ago to Australia. Gerard Beale and Greg Eastwood are the two men to drop from the original 19-man squad.

Preview

Even though England managed to narrowly edge out the Kiwi’s in last year’s three-game test series it is almost impossible to favour one team. New Zealand do come into the game on the back of a 26-6 loss to Australia which may have dampened their spirits whereas England earned a comfortable 6-40 victory over France in Avignon. With both sides evenly matched it is likely to be a terrible mistake or a moment of magic which will decide this game.

Bennett has made the call to start Gale over Williams despite Williams featuring in last year’s test series. Gale, who has had a terrific season with Castleford, made his England debut last weekend against France and put in a solid performance however it is yet to be seen whether he has the quality to perform on the international stage against a side as strong as the Kiwi’s. He will be accompnanied in the halves by Gareth Widdop who is now England’s most experienced half and will need to take on the responsibility of organising his side.

While Gale and Widdop may take time to gel Thomas Leuluai and Shaun Johnson should already be accustomed to each other. Leuluai will take the role of organiser and is an experienced and composed player in the halves. Johnson is the creative spark who can turn a game on its head with one simple sidestep if England give the Warriors half-back room he will glide straight through England’s defensive line as he did in the World Cup semi-final three years ago.

Down the middle a tonne of quality NRL forwards will clash with England closing the gap in this department in recent years. James Graham, Elliot Whitehead and the Burgess trio offer England an immense amount of power and aggression which proved dividend last year. However, the Kiwis will match the English in the pack with the likes of Kevin Proctor, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Adam Blair and captain Jesse Bromwich. Jason Taumololo was the top metre-maker in the NRL last season his battle with Sam Burgess at thirteen will be key.

Josh Hodgson has had a sensational season with Canberra and is possibly the most rounded hooker in the world at the moment and in Daryl Clark England have a hooker who is lethal against a tiring defence. Isaac Luke will start at hooker for New Zealand and if he manages to keep his cool he will be instrumental.

Likely Line-Ups

England: Lomax, McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall; Widdop, Gale; Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Whitehead, Bateman, S. Burgess.

Interchanges: Clark, G. Burgess, T. Burgess, Cooper.

New Zealand: Kahu, Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich, Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumalolo.

Interchanges: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.

Last Five Meetings

  • England 20-14 New Zealand – Test Match – 14th November 2015.
  • England 2-9 New Zealand – Test Match – 7th November 2015.
  • England 26-12 New Zealand – Test Match – 1st November 2015.
  • New Zealand 16-14 England – Four Nations – 8th November 2014.
  • England 18-20 New Zealand – World Cup – 23rd November 2013.

Thoughts

With Australia comfortably beating Scotland last night and expected to win all of their games it means that this opening game is pivotal for both England and New Zealand as the team who wins is likely to reach the final.

Personally, I believe England will come on top in the forward battle with the likes of Graham, Whitehead and the Burgess’ experienced against their NRL counterparts however in the backs New Zealand have the advantage. Johnson and Leuluai are much more experienced than Gale and Widdop. Centres Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Solomone Kata could cause Kallum Watkins and Dan Sarginson serious issues out wide depending on the opportunities that come their way.

However, I do think that Bennett will have prepared England for all the threats the Kiwis have to offer and England, in similar style to last year, will come away with a narrow victory.

Prediction: England 26-22 New Zealand.

Four Nations 2016: Australia 54-12 Scotland – Match Report

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Despite suffering a 54-12 at the hands of a rampant Australia side Scotland showed that they are aptly nicknamed as the Bravehearts put in a valiant performance in the first ever meeting between the sides.

Australia were always favourites and controlled the game throughout but Scotland made it clear they aren’t just here to make up the numbers in the 2016 Four Nations.

Cooper Cronk and Josh Mansour both grabbed first half doubles with Blake Ferguson and James Maloney also crossing in the first forty. Ryan Brierley, on debut, managed to score in the closing stages of the first half to make sure the Scots didn’t go into the break scoreless.

Josh Dugan scored early in the second half however this was soon cancelled out when Ben Kavanagh powered over. Tyson Frizell, Michael Morgan and Jake Trbojevic all scored in the final fifteen minutes to seal a comfortable victory for Mal Meninga’s side.

Meninga chose to rest some of the Kangaroos key players with Greg Inglis, Jonathan Thurston and Matt Scott all missing the game. James Maloney, Matt Moylan, Jake Trbojevic, Jake Friend and Justin O’Neill all debuted.

Steve McCormack also picked six debutants in his Scotland side with Brierley, Lachlan Coote, Billy McConnachie, Sheldon Powe-Hobbs and Wigan’s Lewis Tierney all making their first international appearances.

It didn’t take long for Australia to slice through the Scotland defence as Blake Ferguson took advantage of some quick hands from the scrum and outpaced Ryan Brierley.

Cameron Smith soon emphasised why he’s the best hooker in the world when he jumped from behind the play-the-ball and put a low kick back across himself which nobody in the stadium saw coming except Melbourne and Queensland teammate Cooper Cronk who finished well.

Two tries in quick succession followed for the Kangaroos as Cronk found full-back Matt Moylan on an inside ball and Moylan in-turn found James Maloney who, had started and, finished the move under the posts. Tyson Frizell broke from the halfway line before finding Cronk in support who scored his second in six minutes.

Scotland’s defence was working hard and hooker Liam Hood put in a great hit on Moylan to raise Scotland spirits but they were soon brought back down when Moylan threw a long ball which allowed Josh Mansour to cross.

Australia capatalised on another Scotland error when Maloney managed to step through the line before finding an onrushing Moylan. Lewis Tierney did well to close Moylan down but the Penrith man found Mansour who managed to pull off an acrobatic finish under pressure from Danny Brough.

Scotland had created some half chances but Dale Ferguson and Danny Addy had failed to collect the ball but Steve McCormack’s side did get on the scoreboard just before the break. Brough’s neat low kick was flicked by Smith but it fell straight in the path of Brough’s Huddersfield teammate Brierley who planted the ball down to score on his Scotland debut. Brough converted but Australia went into the interval with a comfortable 30-6 lead.

However, Australia started the second half in similar fashion to the first as Cronk put Josh Dugan through and the centre managed to step around Lachlan Coote before scoring. The Kangaroos pressure continued and Addy could have been sent to the bin when he jumped on an Australia play-the-ball from an offside position however referee Ben Thaler decided against it.

Brough soon halted the Australia pressure when he shot out of the line and intercepted Moylan’s pass but the half-back didn’t have the pace to reach the line. Scotland did take advantage from the resulting set though as Ben Kavanagh crashed over on the back of a short-ball from Adam Walker.

Tyson Frizell was lucky not to be sent for ten when he narrowly missed Tierney with a swinging arm and the second-rower continued to make his presence felt moments later when he shrugged off Sheldon Powe-Hobbs to score from close-range.

Maloney and Moylan linked up well throughout and they combined again with ten minutes remaining before the ball eventually found Michael Morgan who cantered over the line unchallenged. Australia reached the fifty-point mark when Trent Merrin broke through the line before finding Jake Trbojevic who crossed for his first international try.

England face New Zealand tomorrow at Huddersfield’s John Smiths Stadium in the second game of the first round.

Australia: Moylan, Mansour, O’Neill, Dugan, Ferguson; Maloney, Cronk; Woods, Smith, Klemmer, Thaiday, Frizell, Trbojevic.

Interchanges: Friend, Boyd, Merrin, Morgan.

Scotland: Coote, Tierney, Aitken, Linnett, Russell; Brough, Brierley; Walker, Hood, Douglas, Addy, Ferguson, Kavanagh.

Interchanges: Hellewell, Powe-Hobbs, Brooks, McConnachie.

Referee: B. Thaler Touch Judges: M. Craven & J. Smith Video Referee: B. Sutton

Attendance: 5337.

Four Nations 2016: Australia vs Scotland – Preview

The opening game of the 2016 Four Nations sees international superpowers Australia face debutants Scotland at Hull KR’s KC Lightstream Stadium.

Scotland qualified for the tournament following their triumph in the 2014 European Cup and are now the fifth different country to earn a place as the 4th nation and they will be hoping to put in a better performance than Wales, France, Samoa and Papua New Guinea before them.

Australia, as always, come into the competition as clear favourites despite failing to win the Four Nations in 2014. The ten-time World champions and two-time Four Nations winners will come over looking to add to their already decorated honours list.

Team News

Mal Meninga has chosen to rest some of his key players for their opening fixture. Darius Boyd, who featured in the warm-up game against New Zealand, will be replaced by a debuting Matt Moylan. Justin O’Neill, James Maloney, Jake Trbojevic and Jake Friend are all also likely to put on the Australian jersey for the first time.

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Maloney is set to debut

 

O’Neill will play in place of Greg Inglis while James Maloney will replace Jonathan Thurston in the halves. Matt Scott will be rested and Tyson Frizell and Jake Trbojevic will start for the Kangaroos.

As for Scotland, North Queensland’s Lachlan Coote is in line to make his debut at full-back which means Matty Russell will move to one wing with Wigan’s Lewis Tierney on the other. Danny Addy is likely to drop from the side to be replaced by captain Danny Brough who will partner Ryan Brierley in the halves.

Preview

Both sides come into the competition on the back of wins in their warm-up games with Australia beating New Zealand 26-6 and Scotland overcoming a Cumbria select side 16-48. But, the outcome of the game seems a foregone conclusion – a comfortable victory for Australia however with some of their key players being rested it could take them some time to get going. Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith will be pivotal for the Kangaroos as they will guide the side around the field and keep their forwards organised.

In the final third the flair and creativity will be provided by the two debutants – James Maloney and Matt Moylan. Maloney will take on the Scotland line and if the performs to the standards he has with the Cronulla Sharks this season it could be a long night for Steve McCormacks men. Moylan will support Maloney in the attacking line and with dangerous centres and wingers either side of him it isn’t hard to see where Australia’s points will come from.

However, Scotland’s back line isn’t too shabby itself. Coote’s NRL experience could be

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Scotland’s NRL star – Lachlan Coote

vital for the Scots as he competes against the Australian superstars every week. Huddersfield half-back duo Brough and Brierley will need to be at their best to cause Australia’s resilient defence problems but if they do manage to create openings then Warrington’s Matty Russell and Wigan’s Lewis Tierney will finish them.

 

But in the forward battle Scotland will struggle while the likes of Adam Walker, Frankie Mariano, Dale Ferguson and Ben Kavanagh are solid players in the Championship and Super League they will struggle to match the sheer power and speed of Mal Meninga’s pack. Aaron Woods has been a breakout star for Wests over the past two seasons and he will be looking to make a name for himself of the international stage along with Frizell and Trbojevic. Sam Thaiday, as always, will be hard to keep quiet.

Likely Line-Ups

Australia: Moylan, Mansour, O’Neill, Dugan, Ferguson; Maloney, Cronk; Woods, Smith, Klemmer, Thaiday, Frizell, Trbojevic.

Interchanges: Friend, Boyd, Morgan, Cordner.

Scotland: Coote, Russell, Hellewell, Linnett, Tierney; Brough, Brierley; Walker, Hood, Douglas, Phillips, Ferguson, Kavanagh.

Interchanges: Moran, Brooks, Mariano, Maneely.

Referee: Ben Thaler

Thoughts

While this Scotland side is definitely the strongest they’ve ever fielded it would take a brave man to even think that it could compete with the elite of Australia. The Bravehearts will come out fired up and may put in a solid display for the first 15-20 minutes but they will soon set in as they succumb to the power and skill of the Australian side. Once Maloney and Cronk settle in together at scrum half and stand-off the Kangaroos will cross for their first try and it could end up being a rather heavy defeat for Scotland after that but McCormack’s side will get on the scoreboard.

Prediction: Australia 58-6 Scotland

Four Nations 2016: The Preview

This weekend marks the beginning of the Rugby League Four Nations with Australia, England, Scotland and defending champions New Zealand all battling it out to take home the title.

Here is a team-by-team preview.

Australia

Ten-time World Cup winners and five-time Tri-Nations/Four Nations champions Australia head into the competition as favourites to take the trophy home. Australia’s newzealandvaustraliarugbyleagueworldu_7yre4y3jaldominance on the international stage has been clear for a prolonged period of time with only occasional defeats to the Kiwi’s preventing them from perfection. For former Australia centre and Queensland State of Origin Coach Mal Meninga it will be his first test in a competitive tournament and he will be looking to begin his international coaching career in similar fashion to many of his predecessors by winning silverware.

Meninga has named five potential debutants in his 21-man squad with James Maloney, Matt Moylan, Justin O’Neill, Jake Trbojevic and Jake Friend all potentially wearing the Australia jersey for the first time. Maloney has had a great season with Cronulla winning the NRL Grand Final and will offer Australia a lot in the final third. Moylan is a dangerous full-back while Justin O’Neill provides a lot of pace and power in out wide which the Kangaroos will certainly utilise.

Despite the new boys coming into the squad it’s Australia’s experienced men who will lead the side and are likely to make the difference in the big games. Jonathan Thurston is instrumental in the halves and can change a game at the flick of a switch. Thurston’s timing in the final third is near perfect and his kicking game will cause problems for any team. Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith will guide the Australian’s around the field and expect Greg Inglis to make an impact as he always does.

Australia are the number one side in the world despite losing out to New Zealand in the 2014 Four Nations. The Kangaroos will expect nothing less than to dominate the competition and to win their third Four Nations crown however it may be more difficult this year than it has been in the past.

Squad: Darius Boyd (Brisbane), Matt Moylan (Penrith), Valentine Holmes (Cronulla), Blake Ferguson (Sydney), Josh Mansour (Penrith), Josh Dugan (St George), Greg Inglis (Souths), Justin O’Neill (North Queensland), James Maloney (Cronulla), Michael Morgan (North Queensland), Cooper Cronk (Melbourne), Shannon Boyd (Canberra), David Klemmer (Canterbury), Matthew Scott (North Queensland), Jake Trbojevic (Manly), Aaron Woods (Wests), Cameron Smith (Melbourne), Jake Friend (Sydney), Boyd Cordner (Sydney), Tyson Frizell (St George), Matt Gillett (Brisbane), Sam Thaiday (Brisbane), Trent Merrin (Penrith)

Coach: Mal Meninga (Australia)

Key Player: Cooper Cronk

One to Watch: Aaron Woods

Prediction: Winners

England

Wayne Bennett takes charge of his first competitive matches as England coach following his 6-40 warm-up victory over France in Avignon last weekend. Bennett is an experienced coach who is the most decorated in NRL history and will be looking to further his legacy by bringing a Four Nations title to England.

Of course, the Four Nations mark the return to international Rugby League for Sam englandvfijirugbyleagueworldcupgrouphz5hdduaiuglBurgess, who will also captain the side. Sam was at his best the last time he wore the England jersey in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and there is no doubting he will lead from the front and look to find the form he displayed three years ago. England’s forwards can definitely match the Kiwi’s and Aussies with a lot of them currently plying their trade in the NRL. James Graham, Mike Cooper, Elliot Whitehead and the Burgess twins will provide a huge amount of power up the middle and will look to dominate from the outset.

However, England’s backs may struggle to thrive in comparison with the forwards. Winger’s Ryan Hall and Jermaine McGillvary both struggled this season competing in the qualifiers with Leeds and Huddersfield respectively. Kallum Watkins was a sensation in 2015 but failed to find the form that saw him linked with numerous NRL sides last season. In the halves England lack international experience with Kevin Brown, George Williams and Luke Gale only having a total of eight England caps between them. As the most experienced half-back Gareth Widdop will need to step up on the biggest stage.

The obvious goal for the England side is to come away with the Four Nations title but they need to reach the final first – a feat they have managed in two Four Nations competitions before losing out to Australia.

Squad: Jonny Lomax (Saints), Stefan Ratchford (Warrington), Ryan Hall (Leeds), Jermaine McGillvary (Huddersfield), John Bateman (Wigan), Mark Percival (Saints), Dan Sarginson (Gold Coast), Kallum Watkins (Leeds), Gareth Widdop (St George), Kevin Brown (Widnes), George Williams (Wigan), Luke Gale (Castleford), George Burgess (Souths), Tom Burgess (Souths), Mike Cooper (St George), James Graham (Canterbury), Chris Hill (Warrington), Scott Taylor (Hull FC), Daryl Clark (Warrington), Josh Hodgson (Canberra), Sam Burgess (Souths), Liam Farrell (Wigan), Stevie Ward (Leeds), Elliot Whitehead (Canberra)

Coach: Wayne Bennett (Australia)

Key Player: Sam Burgess

One to Watch: Josh Hodgson

Prediction: Runners-up

New Zealand

New Zealand head into this year’s Four Nations as the current champions following their 22-18 victory over Australia in 2014. England aren’t the only side who’ve had a change of coach since the last competition with Dave Kidwell now in charge of the Kiwi’s. Kidwell was the assistant to Stephen Kearney who left his role earlier this season. Kidwell’s first game in charge didn’t go exactly to plan as his side suffered a 26-6 defeat to Australia but he will be looking to avenge that defeat in the coming weeks.shaunjohnsonnewzealandvcookislandsxuczgnofd0ol

The Kiwi’s main threat comes from half-back Shaun Johnson whose lightning quick feet help him slide through defences without being touched. Johnson also possesses an extremely strong passing and kicking game and will be allowed to express himself alongside the experienced head of Thomas Leuluai. Jason Nightingale’s finishing ability could be a key factor for New Zealand along with the pace of Shaun Kenny-Dowall in the centres.

In the forwards the Kiwi’s aren’t short of power. Experienced campaigners such as Adam Blair, Jesse Bromwich and Greg Eastwood will bring the ball up all day and will stand toe-to-toe with Scotland, England and Australia. Isaac Luke is a dynamic hooker who can exploit a quick play-the-ball but can often let his aggression get the better of him. Jason Taumalolo is a big loose-forward whose work rate in defence is hard to match.

As defending champions New Zealand will come into the tournament with the expectation of retaining their crown. However, with the Australians being as strong as they are and England improving by the game it will be a tough task for the Kiwi’s and Kidwell.

Squad: Jordan Kahu (Brisbane), Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Penrith), David Fusitu’a (NZ Warriors), Jason Nightingale (St George), Jordan Rapana (Canberra), Gerard Beale (Cronulla), Solomone Kata (NZ Warriors), Shaun Kenny-Dowall (Sydney), Te Maire Martin (Penrith), Shaun Johnson (NZ Warriors), Thomas Leuluai (Wigan), Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne), Adam Blair (Brisbane), Jarad Waerea-Hargreaves (Sydney), Isaac Luke (NZ Warriors), Lewis Brown (Manly), Tohu Harris (Melbourne), Manu Ma’u (Parramatta), Kevin Proctor (Melbourne), Joseph Tapine (Canberra), Greg Eastwood (Canterbury), James Fisher-Harris (Penrith), Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland), Martin Taupau (Manly).

Coach: David Kidwell (New Zealand)

Key Player: Isaac Luke

One to Watch: Shaun Johnson

Prediction: 3rd

Scotland

Since the addition of a fourth nation to the competition Wales, France, Papua New Guinea and Samoa have all competed and this year it’s the turn of debutants Scotland. Steve McCormack’s side qualified for the Four Nations by narrowly winning the 2014 European Cup on points difference. The Bravehearts most recent competition didn’t end as well as they finished at the foot of the table in the 2015 European Cup but they did reach the quarter-finals in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup before a 40-4 defeat to eventual finalists New Zealand.47869-jpg

Scotland’s main man is experienced Huddersfield half-back Danny Brough. Brough has been a pivotal player for the Giants and Scotland and any attacking threat the Scots pose will likely come through this man. Huddersfield teammate Ryan Brierley will start alongside Brough and offers a greater running game than Brough. Expect Brierley to use his pace to cut through defences and try and make a name for himself on the international stage after scoring so regularly for Leigh in the Championship.

The Bravehearts squad actually has a strong Championship contingent who will be given the opportunity to prove themselves on the biggest stage. Danny Addy, who recently signed for Hull KR, has proven himself over the past few seasons with Bradford alongside Dale Ferguson. Ben Hellewell has had an excellent season for London Broncos while Liam Hood helped Leigh to promotion. Scotland do have two very clinical Super League wingers however in Matty Russell and Lewis Tierney if the Scots can get these two into try-scoring positions they will definitely get some points on the board.

There is no doubting that Scotland will have prepared well for this tournament and will be full of confidence however to get to the final will be too much to ask. If Scotland manage to win a game it would be a huge achievement for them and it will make the group stage very exciting but it is very unlikely. Scotland will look to put in some solid performances and use the competition as a stepping stone for the future.

Squad: Lachlan Coote (North Queensland), Matty Russell (Warrington), David Scott (Batley), Lewis Tierney (Wigan), Euan Aitken (St George), Ben Hellewell (London B), Kane Linnett (North Queensland), Ryan Brierley (Huddersfield), Danny Brough (Huddersfield), Callum Phillips (Workington), Sam Brooks (Widnes), Luke Douglas (Gold Coast), Ben Kavanagh (Bradford), Billy McConnachie (Ipswich), Kieran Moran (Hull KR), Sheldon Powe-Hobbs (Northern Pride), Adam Walker (Saints), Liam Hood (Leigh), Ryan Maneely (Halifax), Frankie Mariano (Unattached), Brett Phillips (Workington), Danny Addy (Bradford), Tyler Cassel (Wests), Dale Ferguson (Bradford).

Coach: Steve McCormack (England)

Key Player: Danny Brough

One to Watch: Lachlan Coote

Prediction: 4th

Fixtures

  • Australia vs Scotland – Friday, 28th October – 8pm – KC Lightstream Stadium, Hull.
  • England vs New Zealand – Saturday, 29th October –  2:30pm – John Smith’s Stadium, Huddersfield.
  • England vs Scotland – Saturday, 5th November – 5:30pm – Ricoh Arena, Coventry.
  • New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, 5th November – 8pm – Ricoh Arena, Coventry.
  • New Zealand vs Scotland – Friday, 11th November – 8pm – The Zebra Claims Stadium, Workington.
  • England vs Australia – Sunday, 13th November – 2pm – London Olympic Stadium, London.
  • The Final – Sunday, 20th November – 2:30pm – Anfield, Liverpool.

The opening fixture of the 2016 Four Nations sees Australia face Scotland in Hull before England host New Zealand in Huddersfield the following day.

The second round of fixtures is a double-header at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry which is new ground for international Rugby League as the RFL continue to grow and develop the game in new areas. Coventry Bears have competed in League One for the past year and the international double-header could be the catalyst for further growth in the area. England vs Scotland kicks off a 5:30pm before Australia and New Zealand go head-to-head at 8pm.

Workington’s Zebra Claims Stadium hosts the first game of round three on Friday 11th November as Scotland face New Zealand. The London Olympic Stadium is the venue for the final group game, as the RFL continue to try and take the sport to the South, with England facing Australia.

In line with the new venues Liverpool FC’s Anfield stadium will host the final which is expected to be a sell-out.

Prediction

It is hard to look past the Australians as they always seem too quick, strong and clever for the rest of the international sides. It is also very difficult to see Scotland winning a game they may but in some valiant performances but they simply don’t have the talent to compete with the other three sides. England’s opening game against New Zealand is therefore crucial as the winner is likely to earn 2nd place behind the Australians and a place in the final. Personally, I think England will come out on top against the Kiwis but will fall just short in the final against the Kangaroos.

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England 20-14 New Zealand: England win series

41d37014-af4c-4c01-bde5-5cbe16bb7babEngland won their first test series for eight years as they beat New Zealand 20-14 at DW Stadium, Wigan.

An Elliot Whitehead double inspired England to the Baskerville shield. The second-rower firstly collected Matty Smith’s grubber kick in the first half before powering his way over in the second half for his first International tries. Sean O’Loughlin sealed England’s victory late on when he managed to force his way over from yards out.

New Zealand did score two spectacular tries with Jason Nightingale involved in both. The Kiwi winger managed to finish acrobatically in the first half before throwing an audacious pass for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck late on. Jordan Kahu also grabbed a late try but their was no late comeback as Issac Luke couldn’t convert either of the late tries.

England coach Steve McNamara made two changes before the game dropping George Williams and replacing him with Wigan teammate Matty Smith. Jermaine McGillvary also came in replacing Joe Burgess. New Zealand remained unchanged.

England coach McNamara said: “In international sport everyone wants to see the country do well and these boys have worked so hard over the past few years and today they’ve earned their reward.”

England captain Sean O’Loughlin said: “Its a long time since we last had our hands on something we’ve been pushing the Aussies and Kiwi’s close over the past few years and now we’ve finally got over the line.”

Smith said: “It’s a great result the country hasn’t won anything like this for eight years and it means a lot. We’ve been building for a couple of years and come close in the Four Nations and World Cup and moments like this is why you play for your country.”

The victory means England won the series 2-1 after their victory in Hull a fortnight ago. The Kiwi’s couldn’t build on their narrow victory in London last week.

Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney said: “We didn’t bring our best footy today and made errors at crucial times and England were deserved winners.”

New Zealand captain said: “We let ourselves down today the discipline was poor but credit to England they played some good footy tonight.”

It was a fast paced attack minded start from England who began building pressure from the first minute. McNamara’s men earned back-to-back penalties inside the first five minutes with debutant McGillvary causing the Kiwi’s problems. Widdop converted the second of the penalties to give the home side an 2-0 lead; similarly to last weekend.

New Zealand did manage to mount some offense themselves inside the first ten minutes. Luke broke and found winger Nightingale with a looping pass. Nightingale was surging towards the corner but McGillvary, who had started well, managed to force him into touch just before the try-line. 04fc68a5-9b5b-4940-a95f-f4649f967dda

However England were still playing the better and it paid off midway through the half. A Smith grubber kick bounced up off Luke’s leg before falling into the arms of Whitehead who crossed to score his first International try. Widdop’s conversion was successful and extended England’s lead to ten.

The Kiwi’s continued to use their offload game, which was so effective last weekend, and it continued to create chances for them. A number of offloads eventually found Nightingale out wide who again raced towards the try-line but was again denied this time by full-back Hardaker who flew across and put him into touch.

Nightingale had been the Kiwi’s main source of danger and his hard work eventually paid off when he crossed with five minutes of the first-half remaining. Again the Kiwi winger found himself in space down the flank and again found himself in a foot race with Hardaker who was coming across. However Nightingale leaped the challenge of Hardaker and managed to plant the ball down in acrobatic fashion. Luke converted and New Zealand went into the break trailing 8-6.

The second-half started a lot cagier with both sides seeming less reluctant to throw the ball around in the worsening conditions. It took twenty minutes for a real chance to come either sides way. England’s quick hands out to the right found Whitehead who managed to step inside before palming off Kevin Proctor and scoring his second International try and his second of the afternoon.

England managed to hold off New Zealand’s pressure and prevent an immediate response. With just eight minutes remaining England wrapped up the series. O’Loughlin managed to power his way over from yards out in similar fashion to the opening match of the series. New Zealand did score a late consolation try when Nightingale threw a wonder ball inside as he was getting pushed wide. Tuivasa-Sheck collected the ball and scored.

England: Hardaker, McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall, Widdop, Smith, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Whitehead, Farrell, O’Loughlin.

Interchanges: T.Burgess, Cooper, Ferres, Roby.

New Zealand: Tuivasa-Sheck, Nightingale, Kahu, Whare, Kenny-Dowall; Hiku, Nikorima; Bromwich, Luke, Moa, Proctor, Harris, Blair.

Interchanges: Brown, Taupau, Matulino, Glenn.

Referee: Ben Thaler Attendance: