Ahead of this month’s American test between England and New Zealand in Denver, Get ’em Onside believes that the younger – or more inexperienced on the international stage – should be getting a spot in Wayne Bennett’s line up.
Jamie Shaul, for example, is one of those English players who staggeringly hasn’t been capped yet at international level. Realistically up against Stefan Ratchford and Jonny Lomax – who has starred at stand-off for St Helens this year – for the number one jersey, Shaul’s sheer pace and agility would really stand Bennett’s team in good stead. What has also been clear this year is, barring his yellow card in the ill-disciplined cup tie at Featherstone, he has shown maturity and leadership in an injury hit team; his performances have been key in helping a young Hull FC team keep in touch with the top four in Super League. Seven tries and six assists for the Airlie Birds show just how impressive he is from his full-back role – it is time he is given the shot at international level.
The same applies for Danny Richardson, currently the top kicker in Super League. St Helens’ 21-year-old has been one of the key players for Justin Holbrook’s exhilarating team this year despite being one of the most inexperienced. The trust the Australian has shown in the Widnes-born half back should be an example to Bennett who ought to give the star a starting role in Denver – especially with first-choice Luke Gale absent through injury and Kevin Brown’s recent retirement from international rugby. Boasting a potent kicking game, Richardson’s acceleration and creativity with ball in hand are assets which would pose a real threat to the Kiwis. Named in the England Knights squad earlier in the season, it would be an abomination if his performances this year don’t result in a maiden England cap.
Fellow St Helens youngster and Knights squad member Luke Thompson is another who has impressed hugely this campaign. Boasting the most carries while also being the third highest metre-maker in the competition shows that the red-haired prop is something of a workhorse and one who helps to give his more creative Saints team mates the platform to produce the expansive rugby league that Holbrook’s team are becoming known for. A tough tackler, there are clear similarities between Thompson and former Saint James Graham and it would prove a ferocious front row pairing if the two were to line up alongside each other in Denver – if he is promoted from the Knights squad to the full Elite Performance Squad.
Another who, staggeringly, hasn’t been included in the top-tier squad is Wigan Warriors’ exceptionally talented Oliver Gildart. The 21-year-old is one of the best centres in the competition and, at such a tender age, is still some way from his peak. With the injury to Kallum Watkins ruling him out of contention, it is likely that Mark Percival will be competing – or lining up alongside – Gildart, depending on where in the thirteen his Wigan team mate John Bateman is selected. Nine tries and three assists so far for the Warriors show the youngster’s quality and, if this game is to truly showcase rugby league to North America, it is players like him who need to be involved.
One of the true mavericks of the game, rugby league’s very own “horrible man” Jake Connor, is also surely playing his way onto the plane. Alongside Shaul, the former Huddersfield Giant has been Hull FC’s playmaker in chief in recent weeks and, while he has starred in the halves of late, his versatility is something coaches throughout the sport would crave. While his on-field antics may put Bennett off promoting the 23-year-old to the EPS – the above quote was coined by FC coach Lee Radford, referring to Connor’s behaviour on the pitch – his talent and ability to do the unexpected would no doubt thrill onlookers in Denver as well as those watching around the world. Six tries and six assists show his ability and, such is his arrogance when on the rugby field, he has shown himself to be a player who thrives and can deliver on the biggest of occasions – something the American test promises to be.