11 April 2021

Breaking Down the England Squad - by Mark

Shaun Wane has named a 35-man training squad as we move within 200 days until the start of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup. 

It includes 7 NRL based players and 28 Super League based players, and there are obviously some World Cup hopefuls who've missed out too. And there's bound to be some changes of Wane's thoughts as well as in injury status and form before the final 24-man squad is announced for the end-of-year tournament itself.

I'm going to go through the 35 players, and some of the omissions, saying who I would expect to see in the final 24 and why.

*EDIT - Following Shaun Wane adding 4 more players to the group for the session on 13 April, I've added these four players in below*

The current in-crowd

John Bateman 
Age: 27 Position: backrow England Caps: 16 Club: Wigan Warriors
Nailed on for the final 24, obvious starter at right second row, and likely captain under Wane. He was the best backrower in Super League in 2018 and in the NRL in 2019, plus Great Britain's stand-out in their otherwise woeful 2019 tour. He came back strong from injury in 2020 and is the SLP voter's favourite to be Man of Steel this year.

Tom Burgess
Age: 28 Position: prop England Caps: 25 Club: South Sydney Rabbitohs)
As a starting prop for a leading NRL contender, he has to be in the final 24. He's going well to start the year, averaging 126 metres per game. Very experienced internationally too with 25 games for England. If I'm picking the side, he's in the matchday 17 and he'll go past 30 caps if England go all the way to the World Cup Final. 

Daryl Clark
Age: 28 Position: hooker England Caps: 8 Club: Warrington Wolves
Rumoured to be wanted in the NRL. Twice in the Super League Dream Team. A strong defender and potent attacker, with exceptional speed. So he clearly has the quality. The real question is does Wane want an option who offers something different as his third hooker, as you have to think there's room for just three in the final 24. I would have him in for the explosiveness he offers, if the tactics of Hodgson and Roby aren't working out.

Mike Cooper
Age: 32 Position: prop England Caps: 8 Club: Warrington Wolves
Since he came back from the NRL he's been brilliant for Warrington and he would thoroughly deserve a World Cup spot that he missed out on in 2017. If he plays this year how he has played the last few, Cooper would be in my final 24. Depending on form and needs during the tournament he could then be on my bench.

Ben Currie
Age: 26 Position: backrow England Caps: 6 Club: Warrington Wolves
He was a real emerging star for England in the 2017 World Cup, although the last year or so hasn't been his peak form. Based on his quality, you'd have to say he has to be in the squad, but he would be behind Whitehead and Bateman in the conversation as a starter. Although, I think Shaun Wane might go with just one specialist back-up backrow forward in his 24. That would make it between Currie and Liam Farrell for the final 24 spot. On form, right now, Farrell would edge it. Things could change by October, it would be very hard to leave out an in form Ben Currie from the squad.
Niall Evalds
Age: 27 Position: fullback England Caps: 0 Club: Castleford Tigers
I've always liked Niall Evalds when he was at Salford and I can't see him being any different this year at Castleford. Great support runner and try scorer, with good speed and evasiveness, plus decent positional defender. But he wouldn't be in my England World Cup squad. He doesn't offer the same utility value as some of the other back up fullback options, and spoiler for later, Sam Tomkins would be my clear first choice right now for the number 1 shirt. Evalds is some distance behind Tomkins in the race for first choice, and probably most people's fourth or fifth choice, as good as he is.

Herbie Farnworth
Age: 21 Position: centre England Caps: 0 Club: Brisbane Broncos
He might not play for one of the top sides, but Farnworth has made himself an NRL regular, and any NRL regular is a great chance of being in the World Cup squad. He can and has played in all the three-quarter roles for the Broncos right across the backline. There's still some defensive naivety in his game but he's making himself noticed more and more with the ball, over 150 metres per game in the NRL this year with a couple of try assists too. I'm not sure I'd start him, but I'd have him in my 24.

Liam Farrell
Age: 30 Position: backrow England Caps: 10 Club: Wigan Warriors
If you're reading this, it's possible that you already know how much I love Liam Farrell. He is as consistent a performer as you'll find in Super League. Wayne Bennett seemed to think he couldn't be the same at international level. Shaun Wane knows everything he can get out of Farrell and will surely trust him to play at the next level up. It all depends on how many specialist backrowers Wane will want in his final 24, and the form and fitness of Farrell and Currie going in if he thinks three specialists is enough.

Luke Gale
Age: 32 Position: half back England Caps: 9 Club: Leeds Rhinos
He's one of only three halves that Shaun Wane has announced in his train-on squad. So on that basis, he has to be in with a really good shout of making the final 24, as you can't see Wane going into a World Cup with just two halves in his squad. For me, he's definitely raked third out of the three, behind Williams and Lomax. I'd probably choose Gareth Widdop and Jake Trueman ahead of him in the squad too. He wouldn't be the pivotal player to an England side now that he was to Castleford in 2017 and to Leeds now. He might just about have the best kicking game of the options for England, but all round he's not the best option for me. He wouldn't be in my final 24.

Oliver Gildart
Age: 24 Position: centre England Caps: 3 Club: Wigan Warriors
Gildart is supremely talented and we saw from his England debut that he can perform at the next level up. Injury playing for Great Britain in 2019 was a real shame as he looked one of GB's better performers at the point of injury. If he had played out that tour, possibly we would have been talking about him as nailed on in the left centre spot for England in this World Cup. As it is, he might not even make the squad. I expect one of Gildart or Percival to start, but the other will only then be in the squad if Wane wants a specialist centre as back-up. I'd have them both in, as both can cover the wings too in a pinch. Form will dictate which one starts if they're both fit for selection.

Josh Griffin
Age: 30 Position: centre England Caps: 0 Club: Hull FC
Griffin has had another strong start to the season for Hull FC. Although I think we've seen that before. The last strong finish to a season he had was at Salford running in to the Million Pound Game in 2016. He does give me the impression of a Shaun Wane player with his powerful uncompromising style, although Wane has often wanted a bit more flair from his outside backs with the middle being more about grunt. I think he'll just miss out, with the quality of left centre options being so high right now, and those ahead of him having international experience already.

Ash Handley
Age: 25 Position: winger England Caps: 0 Club: Leeds Rhinos
Assuming he comes back from his injury in the sort of form he's shown the past two seasons, it would be hard to leave him out of the final 24 even if he doesn't make the starting side. Over 40 tries since the start of 2019 and back-to-back Dream Team selections show the sort of form he's been in. I would take three out-and-out wingers in my final 24. It's between Handley and McGillvary who is my third winger, and it's whoever has the best form come the Autumn for me as I'm struggling to separate the two, although they both offer slightly different skills.
Zak Hardaker
Age: 29 Position: fullback/centre England Caps: 6 Club: Wigan Warriors
Hardaker's best position is fullback, but his best position for his club and his country with everyone fit is probably centre, just because of what Bevan French and Sam Tomkins offer. Assuming he finds himself eventually back a right centre for Wigan this year, and performs like he did there in last year's season run-in, I think Wane will have him as right centre come the opening World Cup game. If he stays at fullback for Wigan, he will surely be in the squad with how he's performing, but it will be as back-up for both spots.

Josh Hodgson
Age: 31 Position: hooker England Caps: 19 Club: Canberra Raiders
It does feel like we've never quite seen him at his best for England in the same way we see him perform at Canberra week-in-week-out during the NRL season. Because of those NRL performances, if injury free, he can't be left out. It's very likely too that he'll be playing with his clubmates Williams, Whitehead and Sutton, which would be a good thing for England. Especially the hooker and half link-up that will provide.

Tom Johnstone
Age: 25 Position: winger England Caps: 1 Club: Wakefield Trinity
This is a player everyone roots for, because we've seen in Super League the spectacular that he can deliver. He seems to be free from his knee injuries that have interrupted his career to date - without them you have to think he would have played more internationals. His recent back-to-back games ended by concussion is a worry, as neither looked like brutal contacts. But assuming that isn't a lingering problem come the autumn, he starts on the left wing for me. At the top level, you need a player who can score from nowhere, in more ways than one, and Johnstone has shown he can be spectacular from long-range from close-in tight spots. 

Toby King
Age: 24 Position: centre England Caps: 0 Club: Warrington Wolves
I'm a big fan of King and his progression over the last couple of seasons. So I think he really deserves the recognition of his call up to Wane's training squads. I just think he isn't as good as two or three other players that Wane can pick ahead of him. He does add the option that he seems to be equally as good in the left or right centre spot, not something that all the options could say. But it would probably be better for this World Cup if he was to show up for Ireland rather than England. Sorry Toby.

Morgan Knowles
Age: 24 Position: loose forward England Caps: 0 Club: St Helens
My only question with Knowles is do you start him or play him off the bench. I really think he's that good that I would get him in my match day squad. His form over the last two seasons in a very good St Helens side has been faultless. Although he doesn't have England or GB experience, injury being a factor in that, he has played in a World Cup for Wales, so I'm not worried about his lack of experience. 

Jonny Lomax
Age: 30 Position: half back England Caps: 9 Club: St Helens
I keep hoping and wishing that we get to see Lomax play as well internationally as he does for St Helens. He's started well in 2021, after being excellent in 2019 and 2020. He's now a robust player who can defend as well as attack brilliantly. I'm definitely willing to give him one last chance to show he can be a performer at the international level. I'm starting him at 6. I'd have him doing regular zoom calls with Hodgson, Williams and Tomkins to talk about how they will work together for England.

Jermaine McGillvary
Age: 32 Position: winger England Caps: 17 Club: Huddersfield Giants
I really don't want to write Jerry off. He was amazing in the 2017 World Cup. He's still a consistent metre maker for Huddersfield in Super League, he scores you plenty of points if you put him in your fantasy side. But I think he's just over the other side from his peak and he's not an unknown quantity internationally anymore. I have a lingering memory too of him bombing a few tough chances in the Great Britain series. Chances that he needs to be taking. Chances that I think Tommy Makinson takes. If Ash Handley doesn't return to fitness, he just makes it in as the back up specialist winger. I think he'll miss out.

Paul McShane
Age: 31 Position: hooker England Caps: 0 Club: Castleford Tigers
McShane's brilliance at Castleford under Daryl Powell is undeniable, and that's why he won Man of Steel in 2020 in a losing side. He's started 2021 in much the same form. However, he's got some serious competition for places and his game is arguable very similar to Josh Hodgson, who does it in the NRL and not just Super League. So then, it's whether Shaun Wane wants a like-for-like third hooker in the squad or wants the different option that Daryl Clark offers. I'd go with Clark, and McShane would be an unlucky omission from the final 24. 

Tommy Makinson
Age: 29 Position: winger England Caps: 4 Club: St Helens
If he's fit, he's starting. It's that simple. He's got a very strong and complete skillset now and a good international record in his small amount of top level experience, 4 tries from 4 caps. I don't ned to say anything else about him.
Dom Manfredi
Age: 27 Position: winger England Caps: 0 Club: Wigan Warriors
How can you not root for Dom Manfredi after the injury woes he's overcome. He was out of the game for 2 years through injury and came back to score twice in a Grand Final victory. But similarly, how can you trust that he will be able to get through a full World Cup campaign, given his return has been punctuated by a number of further injury spells. As good as he is, I can't see him proving his fitness consistently enough, sadly. So he misses out for me.

Harry Newman
Age: 21 Position: centre England Caps: 0 Club: Leeds Rhinos
The challenge for this fantastic young talent will be getting in to prime form when he returns from fitness later this year. Possibly time is against him in 2021, but time os on his side for the rest of his career, as he could have another three World Cup chances in him given his young age. I think he might narrowly miss out this time. But he does strike me as a player Shaun Wane would really like coaching, so don't rule him out completely.

Mark Percival
Age: 26 Position: centre England Caps: 6 Club: St Helens
I would put Percival in a similar category to Lomax, in that his quality and club performances unquestionably mean he should get the chance to play at the next level up. But I'm not convinced that he's ever taken that chance with both hands yet. Percival's problem is there's quality options in his position with Gildart and Farnworth being similar to him. If he can get injury free there's no doubt he'll be in good form come the season end, he can't not be in that St Helens side. I don't know if he is a Shaun Wane player, he doesn't seem to be a deep thinker about the game. I would struggle to leave someone so good out of the squad, but I'm not sure he starts in Wane's first choice side.
Joe Philbin
Age: 26 Position: loose forward/prop England Caps: Club: Warrington Wolves
His 2019 form earned him a Great Britain squad spot, and it was much deserved in my view, as he was a great impact player at that time. But we haven't seen consistency from him since. In my view, he isn't making the same impact at the moment, so his performances would need to improve to get him in my England squad, and I think it would be better for the World Cup if he was running out for Ireland instead. But, if you analyse the 35 Wane is working with, the final 24 would be a middle-forward short without him. Like Luke Gale, I wouldn't have him but you can't rule him out based on the make-up of this training squad.

Stefan Ratchford
Age: 32 Position: fullback England Caps: 6 Club: Warrington Wolves
I would say his only real chance of getting in is as a very versatile player that can back up in so many positions should injuries hit mid-tournament. But with Wane saying he'll be picking players in their best positions, and there being a number of arguably better players than Ratchford in all his position, and certainly in his primary position, he won't get picked for the final squad. I wouldn't have him in mine either. 

James Roby
Age: 35 Position: hooker England Caps: 31 Club: St Helens
The ageless wonder who performs with relentless consistency. I would still want him in my squad and it's a tough call to think of him as anything other than your starter too. I can't separate Roby and Hodgson really, so it's whether Wane gives a slight edge to the NRL intensity that Hodgson plays under. Roby can operate more as a runner too, so that might be why we'll see him coming from the bench come game time.

Dan Sarginson
Age: 27 Position: centre/fullback England Caps: 3 Club: Salford Red Devils
I know how much Sarginson has given of himself when playing in Wane's Wigan side in the past. In terms of heart and attitude, he's a player you want around. Whether he's consistently got the quality that you'll need to run through the final stages of a World Cup tournament is where I'm not sure. He is a very good player but not an elite player in my view. He wouldn't be in my World Cup 24.

Ryan Sutton
Age: 25 Position: prop/loose forward England Caps: 0 Club: Canberra Raiders
The way he's started 2021 should make him a nailed on part of the World Cup 24. Playing regularly and consistently for a title contender in the NRL means he has to be in the squad. Shaun Wane gave Sutton his senior debut at Wigan and coached him for five years, so he's knows his game very well. He would be in my match day 17, and it would be between him and Morgan Knowles for who starts at 13.

Luke Thompson
Age: 25 Position: prop England Caps: 4 Club: Canterbury Bulldogs
When he left Super League he was performing at his absolute peak, one of the best front rowers in all of the game. It feels like it hasn't fully gone to plan since his NRL move mid-2020. But he's still a high class performer playing week-in-week-out at the top level down under, albeit in a poor side. There's no way he isn't starting in the World Cup for England without injury or suspension getting in the way.

Sam Tomkins
Age: 32 Position: fullback England Caps: 25 Club: Catalans Dragons
Shaun Wane has said if the tournament started tomorrow, he would be fullback. On a Twitter poll we ran this week he was a clear favourite from the four options in the squad. And not without good reason. We've seen three Catalans games at time of writing, and Tomkins has been the best player in all three -leading the Man of Steel standings after two rounds and getting BBC player of the match in the Challenge Cup game. He's England's number 1 for me.

Alex Walmsley
Age: 31 Position: prop England Caps: 5 Club: St Helens
There's no debate that he's playing in the World Cup, assuming injury free. Walmsley is a real weapon for England and whilst the best normally play in the NRL, it might benefit us that he doesn't, as he'll provide something slightly different for the other top nations to face up against. I'm a little concerned about the really long minutes St Helens are seeming to play him this year so far, I don't want him burnt out come the World Cup. HE could be a huge part of bringing success for England.
Kallum Watkins
Age: 30 Position: centre England Caps: 26 Club: Salford Red Devils
The Kallum Watkins that played in the last World Cup was peak world class Kallum Watkins. It does feel like injury and club moves have meant we've not seen him get back to those levels from that Magic Weekend injury in 2018. Actually, I was surprised he had made the training squad, as I don't see anything in his form that suggests he's going to be the Watkins we saw four years ago again. Experience and past performance, plus being the only fully fit specialist right centre, are the only explanations I can come up with. I'm not expecting him to do enough this season for Salford to make my final 24, he's not the best right centre option in the squad currently in my view, but truly I hope he can be what he was in 2017 once again, as that makes England better,

Elliott Whitehead
Age: 31 Position: backrow England Caps: 20 Club: Canberra Raiders
A consistent performer and seasoned NRL veteran like Whitehead will make the final squad. He has been England's starting left backrow forward and it's hard to see an argument to change that. He will be England's starting left backrow forward.

George Williams
Age: 26 Position: half back England Caps: 10 Club: Canberra Raiders
Williams will be England's starting number 7. He was already a great Super League player with an almost complete skill set when playing under Wane for Wigan. He's since become even more rounded a player, a more confident talker and more composed tactician after a debut NRL season that couldn't have gone much better than it did. 

Matty English
Age: 23 Position: prop England Caps: 0 Club: Huddersfield Giants
First of the late additions, and one that is a little bit of a surprise to me. He has played for the Knights in 2019, so he's been on the England radar. English definitely has the potential to go all the way, whether or not he's shown the consistency yet to tell me he's ready is another thing. I think it's great for him to get this taste of things, I'm not sure he will be in the final World Cup squad, this time around at least.

Jake Wardle
Age: 22 Position: centre England Caps: 0 Club: Huddersfield Giants
I'm a huge fan of young Wardle. He's already a class attacking player, with good speed and skills. Like his clubmate Matty English, he's still a bit inconsistent. I think he can be inconsistent both within an between games. He also adds his name to long list of left centres in the squad and so he wouldn't make my final squad. But, with current injuries over Gildart and Percival, Wardle has a chance to stake his claim.

Mikolaj Oledzki
Age: 22 Position: prop England Caps: 0 Club: Leeds Rhinos
I had him on the list of this on the outside looking in, so I'm pleased he's been added to the group. Oledzki has shown a lot of development in the last 18 months to now be a regular starter at Leeds and he's beaten more senior competition out of that squad. It does depend on how Wane wants the make-up of his final 24 to look, but I would have him in a group of four or five guys that have a real good chance of sneaking in as a squad member come autumn.

Kruise Leeming
Age: 25 Position: hooker England Caps: 0 Club: Leeds Rhinos
I've nothing at all against Leeming, I think he's a really capable Super League player and like the skillset he brings to the dummy half position. However, I just don't get this call up. There's already four very strong hookers in the 35 originally named, and I'm not being harsh by ranking Leeming fifth of this five, that's just the quality of the others. Unless there's a sever injury run on the position, I'm afraid he doesn't feature at the World Cup, through nothing he would do wrong.

Outside looking in

Jake Connor and Jake Trueman were probably two of the more questioned omissions from Shaun Wane's 35 man training squad. Both have been in and around the international set up over recent years in Wayne Bennett's era and both have started the 2021 season strongly. Gareth Widdop also not getting a look in might be seen as a surprise
  • Connor is now playing what many think is the best spot for him, fullback, but also offers real backline versatility from a squad perspective, acknowledging that he's unlikely to be the starting number 1 with Tomkins in great form. However, it's possibly yet to be seen if he has the maturity and composure to deal with being that back up. If Wane wanted one of the two ultra-versatile backs in his final squad, I would take Connor over Ratchford as there's more x-factor. But he needs to grow up.
  • Trueman is so skilful and creative. He's still really young and probably not the finished player, defensively in particular. I would want him as my specialist back up half back in the squad over Luke Gale, just because I like him more than Gale, he entertains me more. But experience might tell for this World Cup. He'll have his time though, he's only 22.
  • Widdop's 2020 form was well off his best. But prior to that he has been a good NRL performer for years and a consistent performer for England. I do feel that his experience would be beneficial to the squad, giving him an edge on Trueman if Wane starts to look beyond Gale for his back up half back. All things considered, as long as he is better than last year, I'd have Widdop over both Trueman and Gale this time around, backing up Lomax and Williams. I would give the first choice guys every chance to develop a partnership though, I don't want all the swapping and changing we've so constantly seen in GB and England sides in the past 20 years.
An area where I think England aren't as string as the recent past is in the middle forwards, prop and loose forward. Gone are Sam Burgess, James Graham and Sean O'Loughlin, all world class performers. And whilst the current crop of Walmsley and Thompson were able to replace Morley and Peacock, I'm not convinced we've replaced the more recent three. Philbin doesn't convince me and Cooper convinces but doesn't excite me. So I think we're one good middle forward short for the World Cup. So I'll run through the contenders as I see them.
  • Chris Hill has been a stalwart for England in the last decade and is vastly experienced, but now on the outer. He performances in 2020 weren't quite where we've seen him be before. He probably is on the decline, but he's not a spent force. He'll want back in. 
  • Liam Watts had been consistently excellent for Hull and Castleford and should have played internationally but for competition for places. At 30, is he now on the back stretch of his career too, I wouldn't count him out. 
  • Mikolaj Oledzki qualifies for England and has been with the Knights before now. He's a really exciting young prospect that might fight his way into contention come seasons end. 
  • Brad Singleton has impressed since joining Wigan midway through 2020. He could be an option if his form continues, although I'd prefer if he was starting for Ireland than missing out on the match day squads as England's back up.
  • Scott Taylor is a player with some international experience and has started 2021 well at Hull, probably looks better than the last year or so in the early going. Whether Wane would pick him after his departure from Wigan during Wane's tenure I don't know. He'd have to be playing even better than he is to get in I think.
  • Lee Mossop is another with good experience who has played for England and played for Wane. He's been able to get fit and play something close to his best for Salford in the last two years. I'm not sure he'll be able to show enough this year to force his way in though. It's some time since he last played internationally, back in 2013.
  • Matty Lees will be in the conversation you would think. He was very good in 2019. A little bit injury hampered in 2020. If he stays fit, playing in that top of the table Saints side, he'll  find his way into contention for the back up spot that I feel is up for grabs in this squad.
  • Rob Mulhern is a chance to impress if he can play regular minutes at Warrington. He was trending towards an international career in 2018. It might be better for this World Cup though if he can play for his tier 2 nation, Ireland.
  • Rob Butler, also new at Wire for 2021, has had Knights recognition after his Super League season with London Broncos. Again, if he gets regular game time to impress, I'm not ruling him out.
  • Finally, Oliver Partington is the most Shaun Wane of options. Wane brought him through towards the end of his time with Wigan and Partington has become a regular first teamer since then. He would be my final outside chance of being the back up middle for England.
The other omissions to mention are the so called heritage players - Blake Austin and Jackson Hastings grand-parented in for Great Britain in 2019. Austin hasn't been at the high standards he set in 2019 since, although Hastings was outstanding for Wigan in 2020 as he had been for Salford in 2019. Based on the training squads he's announced since his appointment, I can't think Wane is a fan of using heritage players. Otherwise, Hastings would have been in the squads. 

My side for the World Cup

As things stand right now, if the World Cup was starting now and everyone was fit, here's the side I would pick:

  1. Sam Tomkins
  2. Tommy Makinson
  3. Zak Hardaker
  4. Oliver Gildart
  5. Tom Johnstone
  6. Jonny Lomax
  7. George Williams
  8. Alex Walmsley
  9. Josh Hodgson
  10. Luke Thompson
  11. John Bateman
  12. Elliott Whitehead
  13. Morgan Knowles
Bench: James Roby, Tom Burgess, Ryan Sutton, Liam Farrell

Back ups: Herbie Farnworth, Ash Handley, Mark Percival, Mike Cooper, Gareth Widdop, Daryl Clark, Ben Currie

Please do tell us who would make your side. Follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, or get in touch by email: superleaguepod@gmail.com

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