Saturday’s 14-15 defeat at the hands of minnows Italy provided a moment of reflection for Steve McNamara and his England squad. The defeat to Italy need not be the defining moment of England’s preparation for this world cup, but it can help them to progress as a cohesive unit if lessons are learned in key areas.
To progress England need to find a suitable pairing in the halves. One which can lead them round the pitch on Saturday, and can stay together for the remainder of the tournament. England do not need to win on Saturday, but they must perform and give themselves a platform to build on should they meet Australia in the final at Old Trafford.
This half-back pairing must contain Gareth Widdop. Widdop’s limited use during the 2011 four nations tournament was one of the real mysteries of England’s run to the final.
Since that tournament , Halifax-born Widdop has continued to blossom at the Melbourne Storm where he has partnered Australia’s Cooper Cronk in the halves, and deputised for Billy Slater at full-back. These are lustrous credentials for inclusion in any England starting 13!
I would suggest linking Widdop with Chase in the halves. Partnering Widdop with Rangi Chase would provide England with a stable, but potentially unpredictable platform on which a successful tournament can be built.
Kevin Sinfield would slot in at 13, and adopt a similar role to to the one performed by O’Loughlin for Wigan. This allows McNamara to retain his captain at 13 whilst selecting a more fluid half-back combination which is capable of winning games. This is easily achievable in the squad selected for this world cup.
Regardless of suggestions often made about the former Hull and Bradford player, McNamara has done a stable job with England in recent years building on a difficult four nations tournament in 2010 to reach a final on home soil in 2011. There is nothing to suggest similar progress can not be made in the coming five weeks.
Much of this stability has come through stringent loyalty, but now is the time for the England coach to stake his reputation. He must take a big decision as the tournament approaches. Difficult decisions can break coaches, but, if this course of action was to be taken, it is also one which could further his reputation as England coach.