#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.

Super League Team of the Week: Matchday 6

Castleford returned to winning ways this weekend as well as climbing back to the top of Super League following Wigan’s loss to Hull FC.

There were wins for Salford, Wakefield, Saints and Leeds while Widnes and Warrington’s winless streaks continued for another week.

But, who made my Super League Team of the Week?

Full-Back: Jamie Shaul (Hull FC)

Hull FC managed to pull of what could turn out to be a crucial victory in the chase for the League Leaders Shield as they overcame an injury-ridden Wigan side at the DW Stadium. FC had many standout performers but full-back Jamie Shaul was key.

Shaul was a constant threat in the final third having a hand in a couple of Hull’s tries as well as crossing for one himself. The full-backs try four minutes into the second half turned out to be the difference between the sides following a late Wigan fightback.

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Shaul calling the shots for FC. (Image: Sky Sports)

 

Winger: Greg Eden (Castleford Tigers)

Castleford bounced back from their first defeat of the season as they came from behind against Catalans Dragons. The Tigers style of play this season has led to their wingers featuring in many ‘Team of the Weeks’ and this week is no different with Greg Eden occupying a spot on the flank.

Eden’s first came from Castleford earning the ball back from a Catalan scrum and the winger chasing down a Ben Roberts kick. The former Brisbane winger sealed victory for Tigers as he broke through the Dragons defence with fifteen minutes remaining.

Centre: Kris Welham (Salford Red Devils)

Ian Watson’s Salford Red Devils were on fire on Friday night against a struggling Widnes side with nine different try-scorers helping them to a comfortable 10-46 victory at the Select Security Stadium.

Kris Welham was one of those scorers crossing in the first half as well as helping Greg Johnson go over on the same flank. Welham could prove to be a very strong addition to the Salford side.

Centre: Jake Connor (Hull FC)

A fantastic first half display from Lee Radford’s side saw them blow Wigan away with their attacking play too much for the Warriors. Centre Jake Connor had one of his better games in the black and white of FC.

Connor managed to score on the back of a magnificent ball from Sika Manu as well as causing problems for the Warriors defence alongside Mahe Fonua.

Winger: Adam Swift (St Helens)

Friday night’s Sky game saw Saints earn a comfortable victory over Warrington after a difficult opening thirty minutes. Winger Adam Swift went over twice for Kieran Cunningham’s side who are slowly beginning to climb the Super League table.

Mark Percival put Swift over in the closing stages of the first half and the third try in five minutes really dampened Warrington’s spirit going into the interval. The winger managed to grab his double midway through the second half and confirm victory for the Saints.

Scrum-Half: Jacob Miller (Wakefield Trinity)

Wakefield stuttered through the early stages of their game against Leigh on Thursday however once their forwards snatched control of the game half-back Jacob Miller was allowed to play and created numerous opportunities for Trinity.

Miller combined well with Sam Williams opening up the Centurions defence on the back of some quick play-the-balls. Miller was also the man to level the scores at 24-24 when he got on the end of Liam Finn’s low kick.

Stand-Off: Matty Smith (St Helens)

For weeks now we’ve heard Saints coach Kieran Cunningham point out the difference off-season signing Matty Smith would make when he returned to the side and Cunningham’s wasn’t wrong as Smith played a pivotal role in Saints 31-6 victory.

Smith controlled the game for large periods and added an organisation to St Helens that we had yet to witness this season. Cunningham will be hoping the England international’s impact carries on in the coming weeks.

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Matty Smith returned to action for St Helens. (Image: Getty Images)

 

Prop: Keegan Hirst (Wakefield Trinity)

Wakefield made some very astute signings in pre-season and one prospect was Keegan Hirst who arrived at the Beaumont Legal Stadium after two (?) solid seasons with Championship side Batley Bulldogs.

Hirst debuted this weekend and made an impact from the bench in Trinity’s victory over Leigh. Wakefield managed to claw themselves back into the game by winning the forward battle something which Hirst was central to.

Hooker: Matt Parcell (Leeds Rhinos)

For the second week running Matt Parcell sits in the role of hooker in my Super League Team of the Week after another great performance in Leeds’ 12-28 win over Huddersfield at the John Smith’s Stadium on Friday night.

Parcell has injected this Rhino’s side with something different in the final third and is proving to be one of the best Super League signings of 2017 already. Parcell was quickest to react to Carl Ablett’s low kick in the first half which extended Leeds’ lead.

Prop: Lama Tasi (Salford Red Devils)

Salford followed up their surprise victory over Castleford last weekend by signing a handful of players to new contracts with one of those being prop-forward Lama Tasi. The Kiwi displayed his commitment to the cause with an excellent performance in the Red Devils hammering of Widnes.

Ian Watson’s side, much like last weekend against the Tigers, completely dominated the ruck with forwards such as Tasi and Murdoch-Masila. Tasi powered his way over to open the scoring before eight other Red Devils would cross for tries of their own.

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Lama Tasi in action for the Red Devils. (Image: Sporting Life)

 

Second-Row: Junior Moors (Castleford Tigers)

Daryl Powell’s expansive brand of Rugby League draws a huge amount of attention to his backs however it’s Cas’ powerful pack that lay the groundwork and Junior Moors is a consistent performer for the Tigers.

Moors, who was a handful for the Dragons defence throughout Sunday afternoon’s game, also found himself on the scoresheet just five minutes into the second half as he strolled through the Catalans defence.

Second-Row: Carl Ablett (Leeds Rhinos)

Carl Ablett was sent to the bin in Leeds victory over Huddersfield for an altercation with Danny Brough. However, the experienced second-rower had already made the positive impact necessary for the Rhinos in the first half and that’s why he made my Team of the Week.

Ablett pounced on a loose ball to put Leeds ahead in the first half and he turned provider a few minutes later as his grubber kick was planted down by Matt Parcell.

Loose-Forward: Jon Wilkin (St Helens)

With Matty Smith sidelined we’ve seen Kieran Cunningham experiment with youngster Danny Richardson at half-back as well as moving Jon Wilkin into the halves. While Wilkin has produced solid performances, he was back to his best this weekend as he returned to the pack.

The veteran forward looked to have a weight off his shoulders with Smith at half-back and excelled in both defence and attack for Saints.

 


 

Super League Team of the Week: Matchday 5

Another enthralling weekend of Super League action saw Castleford and Wigan fail to win for the first times this season. However, Wigan’s draw keeps them top of the Super League table.

Hull FC and Leeds continued to chase the pacesetters while Warrington and Widnes remain winless.

But, who made my Team of the Week?

Full-Back: Morgan Escare (Wigan Warriors)

Morgan Escare arrived at the DW Stadium in the off-season with a lot of pressure on his shoulders being tasked with the role of filling in for an injured Sam Tomkins however he has adapted to life at Wigan extremely well.

The French full-back crossed in the first half to level the score for the Warriors before kicking two goals including a crucial late penalty goal which earned Wigan a point and meant Shaun Wane’s side are now alone at the top of the Super League table – one point clear of Castleford, Hull and Leeds.

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Morgan Escare kicks a late goal for Wigan. (Photo: Stephen White – CameraSport/Getty Images)

 

Winger: Jack Owens (St Helens)

Since signing from Widnes at the beginning of the 2016 season Jack Owens is yet to set the world alight at St Helens but this weekend his try earned them an important two points in the south of France.

While Theo Fages’ sublime offload made the try Owens was in support to earn Saints’ second victory of the season and inflict Catalans’ first home defeat in 2017.

Centre: Kallum Watkins (Leeds Rhinos)

Leeds made it back-to-back Super League wins with a controlled performance over an in-form Wakefield Trinity side with centre Kallum Watkins scoring twice for the Rhinos.

The Englishman climbed highest from a cross-field kick to open the scoring at Headingley before taking advantage of some neat play from Matt Parcell for his second of the game. England fans will be hoping he can return to the kind of form he displayed in 2015 particularly with the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the season.

Centre: Ben Crooks (Leigh Centurions)

Ben Crooks has been a victim of Castleford’s ever-growing success and has slowly been ousted from the Tigers side however he has shown the quality he possesses since signing a loan-deal with Leigh.

Crooks was solid in defence throughout Leigh’s first victory against Warrington in over twenty years and scored the Centurions second try of the game which really got them moving. The centre took advantage of the free-play rule before collecting his own kick and sliding over.

Winger: Mahe Fonua (Hull FC)

After a slow start against the Vikings it turned out to be a relatively comfortable victory for Hull FC at the KC Stadium and winger Mahe Fonua was on the scoresheet for Lee Radford’s side.

Fonua began the evening as provider taking Marc Sneyd’s cross-field kick well before offloading to Albert Kelly. The roles were reversed later when a neat pass from half-back Kelly found Fonua on the flank and the wideman finished well giving FC an eight-point lead going into the break.

Scrum-half: Albert Kelly (Hull FC)

Albert Kelly’s move across Hull from KR to FC turned some heads in the off-season but he is already proving to be a great addition for the 2016 Challenge Cup winners and was central to their victory over Super League strugglers Widnes this past Friday.

Kelly crossed for two tries in a game which Lee Radford’s side dominated. The half-back’s first came on the back of some good work from Fonua before Kelly again crossed in the second half powering his way over from close-range. Kelly was the most dangerous man on the field for FC scoring twice and earning an assist.

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Albert Kelly celebrates vs Widnes. (Photo: Hull Daily Mail)

 

Stand-Off: Gareth O’Brien (Salford Red Devils)

Salford Red Devils half-back is continuing to turn heads in the world of Rugby League ever since his drop-goal in the Million Pound Game and O’Brien again stepped up this weekend with a one-pointer to consign Castleford to their first defeat of the season.

O’Brien kept his cool late on kicking a penalty goal, after missing an earlier conversion, to draw the sides level before slotting over a drop-goal with just over two minutes left on the clock.

Prop: Gareth Hock (Leigh Centurions)

A remarkable 22-8 victory for Super League newbies Leigh over Warrington was fuelled by prop-forward Gareth Hock who rolled back the years with a terrific performance at the Leigh Sports Village.

The former Wigan and Salford forward was solid in defence and took the ball up well but it was actually his try-scoring which propelled Leigh to victory this weekend. Hock powered over to open the scoring inside the first ten minutes before crossing again in the second-half to help Leigh reach their highest ever Super League points tally.

Hooker: Matt Parcell (Leeds Rhinos)

The departure of James Segeyaro at the backend of the 2016 season left a void in the Leeds Rhinos camp however the arrival of Matt Parcell from NRL side Manly has proved to be a fantastic signing for Brian McDermott’s side.

Parcell was pivotal to everything the Rhinos did going forward in their comfortable win over Wakefield with McDermott saying post-match “My man of the match would be Matt Parcell – I thought he was outstanding.”

Prop: Adam Cuthbertson (Leeds Rhinos)

Leeds prop Adam Cuthbertson is renowned for his offloading prowess but this weekend he added try-scoring to his attacking game as he helped his side to victory against Leeds.

Cuthbertson forced his way under the sticks in the second half against the Wildcats all but sealing victory for the Rhinos.

Second-Row: Ben Murdoch-Masila (Salford Red Devils)

Last weekend Salford were left ruing missed chances in their narrow defeat at Wakefield and nobody would have felt as responsible as Ben Murdoch-Masila who failed to ground the ball correctly in the final minute costing his side the victory.

However, he made up for it this weekend as he twice crossed helping Salford become the first side to beat Castleford this season. Murdoch-Masila was too much for the Tigers to handle on their own line with the big man proving too strong for full-back Zak Hardaker.

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Ben Murdoch-Masila in action for Salford. (Photo: Sky Sports)

 

Second-Row: Anthony Mullally (Leeds Rhinos)

Anthony Mullally has been a fringe player at Headingley over the past few season spending time on dual-registration with Championship side Featherstone Rovers however an injury crisis at Headingley has given the 25-year-old an opportunity and he has taken it with both hands.

Mullally was on the scoresheet this past weekend for the Rhinos powering his way over on the back of a clever inside ball from hooker Parcell. Mullally will be hoping he can cement a permanent place in McDermott’s side.

Loose-Forward: Joel Tomkins (Wigan Warriors)

Joel Tomkins seems to get overlooked a lot recently with the exploits of brother Sam and Wigan’s strength in the forwards but this weekend he looked back at his best for the Warriors.

Tomkins as ever was strong in defence and a real threat going forward for Wigan and helped to inspire a Warriors pack ravaged by injuries.

Toronto Wolfpack’s Debut and the Globalisation of the Rugby League Challenge Cup

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The Challenge Cup – the most historic competition in Rugby League.

 

This weekend will see Canadian-based side Toronto Wolfpack, who are already the first ever trans-Atlantic professional sports team, also become the first to compete in the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

With Paul Rowley and Brian Noble in the Wolfpack’s coaching staff along with the additions of numerous players with Super League experience Toronto head into their first competitive game against National Conference side Siddal surrounded by hype, but also expectation.

However, despite being the first trans-Atlantic side to compete in the Challenge Cup they aren’t the first non-English side to enter the competition with over a dozen foreign sides trying their hand in the historic competition over the years.

In 2007 Catalans Dragons became the first non-English side to reach the Challenge Cup final when they were defeated 30-8 by St Helens. Incidentally, this was also the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley Stadium.

Catalans had already begun to break down the barriers for sides in countries without a prominent Rugby League history and their 2007 Challenge Cup run was the beginning of an ever-growing trend of globalisation in Rugby League.

But, the Dragons weren’t the first French side to ply their trade in the Challenge Cup.

2001 saw the Villeneuve Leopards progress to the quarter-finals of the competition knocking out established English side Rochdale Hornets in the process. Unfortunately, a 32-0 defeat at the hands of Warrington at Wilderspool ended any hopes of cup heroics.

Four years later and clubs from across the Channel were again making an impact with three sides in the competition – Pia XIII, UTC and Toulouse Olympique. Pia and UTC both reached the last sixteen before defeats to Leeds and Wigan meaning it was left to the latter to make history.

Toulouse overcame Wath Brow Hornets, Doncaster and Widnes on their way to a semi-final clash with Leeds. A 56-18 defeat prevented them making the final but they became the most successful foreign side the competition had ever seen – until Catalans’ 2007 exploits.

Following Toulouse’s remarkable run there was a small influx of non-English sides to the tournament.

Again, Pia XIII, Toulouse, Limoux Grizzlies and Catalans represented France but Celtic Crusaders’ introduction to British Rugby League made room for Welsh representation. The Crusaders first Challenge Cup game also came against foreign opposition as they hosted Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.

Russian duo Lokomotiv Moscow and Kazan Arrows debuted in the competition in 2001 but Moscow’s fixture against the Crusaders was the first all non-English tie in the Challenge Cup. The Crusaders came out on top in comfortable fashion and Leigh dispatched of the Arrows with an 80-0 victory.

A Russian side hasn’t featured in the competition since 2009 when Lokomotiv Moscow suffered an 82-6 defeat to Leigh.

Celtic Crusaders (now North Wales Crusaders) have continued to compete in the Challenge Cup since their debut back in 2006 but have only managed a 5th round appearance in 2010. Other welsh teams such as the Valley Cougars, Bonymaen Broncos and semi-professional side South Wales Ironmen (formerly known as South Wales Scorpions) have all entered.                      

Over the past four seasons the Aberdeen Warriors have represented Scotland in the Challenge Cup but are yet to earn a victory with defeats to Pilkington Recs, Skirlaugh and Northumbria University. Another defeat to Pilkington Recs saw them exit this year’s competition in the first round.

Mixed results for non-English sides over the years means it is difficult to completely welcome the idea of a more global competition.

Toulouse and Catalans’ cup runs encourage the idea of a wider competition but heavy defeats Russian, Welsh and Scottish sides would indicate the rest of the world aren’t quite ready to challenge consistently at the top level.

With discussions regarding the World Club Series taking centre stage again in recent weeks it’s important to remember Australia don’t have a knockout competition like the Challenge Cup.

Could Australian sides enter the Challenge Cup instead of the World Club Series? Possibly a far-fetched idea but the possibilities for the competition are endless if the world of Rugby League allows it room to grow.

Whatever the arguments for, or against, more non-English sides entering the competition one thing is for certain and that is that this weekend, no matter the result, Toronto Wolfpack will make history.

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.