Authors: Rio Sports
If this was an open audition for some of England’s fringe players to make an impression on Wayne Bennett before the World Cup quarter-final with Papua New Guinea next week, then the England coach was certainly given some food for thought as his side beat France 36-6.
It is clear there is some way to go until England produce the complete 80-minute display that Bennett wants. But the number of changes he made in the second half here, with victory assured, will have surely played a part in the drop-off in performance. Much like last week against Lebanon, a first half of promise was followed by an error-strewn display after half-time which, with a sudden-death game against the unbeaten Papua New Guinea in Melbourne days away, will leave the England coach scratching his head once again.
However, he will surely have seen enough in the first 40 minutes to believe he has the makings of a side that next weekend can reach the semi-finals, though which and how many of his rotated side he trusts remains to be seen.
There were positives, though, on an ultimately comfortable night in terms of the result – the main one being the influence and performance of the St Helens hooker, James Roby, once again. Roby, handed a first start at this World Cup with Josh Hodgson left out, did more than enough to press his claim for a starting place against PNG, though Bennett may still prefer the NRL experience that Hodgson provides.
Furthermore the England coach has an interesting quandary on his hands in regards to his half-back selection. Kevin Brown said this week that he was fully aware his first World Cup appearance, at the age of 33, could be his last but his first-half performance will, like Roby’s, have possibly persuaded Bennett of another start next weekend.
When England were at their crisp, incisive best through the opening 40 minutes, Brown was impressive - and his experience in the halves helped bring the best out of not only Luke Gale at scrum-half but also Gareth Widdop, who excelled at full-back rather than his usual position of stand-off. There are players, such as St Helens’ Jonny Lomax, who could return to the side next week, but this spine, certainly for some stages at least, produced England’s best attacking moments of the tournament.
Facing a French side who, realistically, needed a minor miracle to reach the quarter-finals, England thoroughly outclassed Aurélien Cologni’s team and were out of sight by half-time. Like last week – when England were comfortably ahead at the break against Lebanon – there was an expectation that they would kick on. Again that did not materialise. That is undisputedly Bennett’s biggest frustration as things stand.The talent is there, the mind-set perhaps not so much.
It was Widdop who opened the scoring after three minutes, when a superb pass from Brown sent the St George Illawarra pivot through in what was a sign of things to come. England were superb early on, with Stefan Ratchford scoring their second try before another free-flowing move – again involving Brown and Widdop – put James Graham over.
By the time France registered their only try of the night through Ben Garcia, two more England tries via Mark Percival and John Bateman had ensured that Bennett’s side would, as many expected, confirm second place in Group A with relative ease.
Bennett would use the second half for experimental purposes, with a number of players playing in unfamiliar positions – and that clearly stunted England’s flow, with a litany of errors limiting them to only two further tries after half-time. They both came from the Huddersfield wing, Jermaine McGillvary, who now has an impressive return of 10 tries in nine games for his country.
Defensively England were again resolute and the fact they did not concede throughout the second half is perhaps the real positive of the second half for Bennett as he looks to the knockouts stages. The group stage has progressed as many expected. Selection decisions as the business end of the tournament gets under way will now be fascinating.
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