The maiden first tier international rugby league match in the United States of America takes place on Saturday night – UK time – as England take on New Zealand.
In a match which, at times, looked as though it may be cancelled at any point during the build up, the appetite for the sport in Denver is clear with in excess of 20,000 advance tickets being sold for the match. The fact that players from both nations have been pictured and filmed interacting with American sports stars will only further benefit the exposure of the game to the natives and those who attend should be rewarded with a treat of a match.
England’s squad isn’t overly different from that seen the last time they played an international, the 6-0 RLWC final defeat to Australia. In fact, of the six members missing in the nineteen man squad from the seventeen in last year’s final, only Chris Heighington would have been available for selection – all of Kallum Watkins, Luke Gale, Ben Currie and Alex Walmsley are out injured while Kevin Brown retired following the conclusion of the tournament. As a result, three new faces were included in the shape of Jake Connor, Tommy Makinson and Luke Thompson. Saints’ Thompson, however, is believed to be the one unlucky member of the squad to miss out on the seventeen through selection – George Williams (Wigan) is injured – and should be forgiven if disappointed about his omission and missing the chance to make his international debut. Having been one of Super League’s premier front rowers this season, his inclusion in the squad was certainly justified and an international future is certain.
Debuts, then, will be handed to Saints’ Makinson and Hull FC’s provocative talent Connor but, with John Bateman thought to be starting in his international role of centre with Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall on the flanks, both players will start on a bench which, unusually, will have two backs on it. What it will present is the opportunity for two of Super League’s brightest talents to light up the international stage as it breaks new ground and, Connor especially, is capable of making the game a memorable one.
The match in the Mile High City will also be New Zealand’s first since the culmination of their RLWC campaign. Theirs, however, ended in unquestionable disappointment as they fell 4-2 at the hands of Fiji in last year’s quarter final. As a result, the Kiwi squad is a much changed one with seven debutants set to pull on the black jersey on Saturday night. Centre Esan Marsters, wingers Jamayne Isaako and Ken Maumalo, second-rower Raymond Faitala-Mariner their first starts at Test level, while Slade Griffin, Leeson Au Mau and Herman Ese’ese are on the interchange bench. Hooker Isaac Luke returns to the fold after being overlooked for the RLWC in what may well prove to be his final international appearance as only seven players survive from the quarter final.
Of his inexperienced squad, new head coach Michael McGuire – formerly of Wigan Warriors – explained that “sometimes when you bring in some hungry young men great things can happen and that is what we are after. If they gel, we have got a lot of speed on the edges and one reason I went with the younger boys is that they are excited, they are fast and if they can get a bit of momentum they are going to be strong and they are going to be tough to handle.”
England seventeen man squad: John Bateman, Sam Burgess, Thomas Burgess, Jake Connor, James Graham, Ryan Hall, Chris Hill, Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Jermaine McGillvary, Sean O’Loughlin (C), Mark Percival, Stefan Ratchford, James Roby, Scott Taylor, Elliott Whitehead, Gareth Widdop.
New Zealand nineteen man squad: Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Herman Ese’ese, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, James Fisher-Harris, Slade Griffin, Peta Hiku, Jamayne Isaako, Jordan Kahu, Isaac Liu, Issac Luke, Te Maire Martin, Esan Marsters, Ken Maumalo, Kodi Nikorima, Joseph Tapine, Martin Taupau, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak