This week saw Australian Wayne Bennett choose the squad that will represent England at the upcoming World Cup in his home country. As widely reported, Zak Hardaker missed out on selection due to his testing positive for cocaine with an enforced ban from sport likely if definitively found guilty but, as expected, there were a few strange picks in his squad. More pertinently, there are some players who would be asking what more did they have to do this season to get a place on the plane.
For starters, how can a player score forty tries in a season and not gain selection? Well, Greg Eden is just that man and, despite being one try short of the club’s record number of tries in a season, he has missed out. While some would argue that anybody could score tries on Castleford’s left edge outside Michael Shenton and Luke Gale, his finishing ability within twenty yards of the opposition line would have been a very useful tool for an England team who have failed to impress in recent tournaments. That understanding with Gale, borne at Wheldon Road, may also have been another huge weapon for England had he been selected. Alas, he was not.
Nor was Shenton, incredibly. A player with huge composure and great quality, the Castleford-born centre was arguably the only player donning the orange shirts of the Tigers in the Grand Final to emerge with any credit after all around him failed to execute. The understanding he formed with Gale and Eden saw that three score over sixty tries between them and would have been sure to carry that form into the World Cup.
Another who wasn’t, staggeringly, is Paul McShane, team mate of Eden and Shenton. After a season where he could count himself unlucky to have not earned a place in the Super League Dream Team (he missed out to Matt Parcell), the hooker was one of the most threatening players in the English game. Instead, Bennett has called on the experience of James Roby after a sterling end to 2017 for St Helens. Despite breaking records throughout 2017, there are only two members of Castleford’s League Leaders’ Shield winning team in the squad – Luke Gale and Mike McMeeken – which I find staggering.
The squad is hardly one flush with a raw, youthful edge in it with Bennett and Denis Betts, his assistant, opting for experience. In some cases, that seems to be more on reputation and past accomplishments rather than a player’s recent form and that is definitely the case with Warrington Wolves’ stand off Kevin Brown. The 33 year old is hardly of world class quality and I feel that Bennett could well have chosen differently to provide the squad with another option for the future in the halves – for example, while not exactly youthful, Mark Sneyd’s superb season for Hull FC should have earned him a seat on the plane. His exceptional kicking game could have proven vital to England as they reached the latter stages of the tournament as his ability to control a match is undoubted.
It is a great shame to see that Stevie Ward isn’t on the plane but it is a testament to his attitude and temperament that, although he was deemed fit enough to play a full part in the Grand Final, he has agreed with advice to withdraw himself for selection for the tournament in order to ensure his fitness for the Leeds Rhinos 2018 campaign. Indeed, he has come out and this week said that he would have been on the plane had he been fit and I am sure that he has a sterling international career ahead of him, fitness allowing.
Jamie Shaul is a man who, much like the aforementioned Eden, will be questioning what more he had to do to make his way into the squad. A season will seventeen tries in a Hull FC shirt, he has proven a constant running threat and one with remarkable consistency. He would have been a player going into the tournament in superb form and, as a back with 124 tackle busts, is a man who can find holes in a defence – something that could have been of great benefit to the team. Instead, Bennett has favoured utility value in his twenty four man squad with both full backs – Jonny Lomax and Stefan Ratchford – having the ability to play in other positions.
While England will most probably reach the final of the tournament, especially now New Zealand have had many players defect to Tonga, they may well have been a greater threat and more entertaining to watch had some of the players mentioned been selected – will Bennett come to regret any of his selections come the tournament’s end?