England made the Rugby League World Cup final last year and this, a test series warm up match against France, was their first game back on home soil since that colossal battle against Australia in Brisbane.
Therefore, you’d expect promotion to be on point and a terrestrial broadcaster provided for the unfortunate souls that couldn’t brace the M62 on a Wednesday night to head to Leigh – for what I must say is a ground that continues to impress me. This the third time of visiting, following on from a previous England visit back in 2015 and Super League venture with Hull FC last season.
But this is the Rugby Football League – a governing body that would struggle to sell beer in a brewery. The games lack of coverage, sparsely attended itself with the gate being just 5,144, infuriated thousands of others back home, as the streaming service provided on the ‘Our League’ app was, along with the ticket service, about as reliable as a Nigerian bank account.
Typical really of rugby league, a sport we continue to big up, but a sport that continues to shoot itself in the foot with persistent amateur operations. It just doesn’t do justice to its hardcore contingent of supporters, nor the players, eight of whom earned their first cap on a nippy night in Lancashire. That itself was something to celebrate, as England build to a home World Cup in 2021.
Thankfully the upcoming test series against New Zealand will be broadcasted by the BBC, and hypothetically speaking at least, it should be an outstanding series. It will be tough, as the Kiwis magnificent win over Australia last weekend showed, but never-the-less it’s something to wet the appetite. We always harp on about how the international game should be the pinnacle of rugby league, and here we’ve got three chances in Hull, Leeds and Liverpool to sell it.
Here England did all they could do against an under-strength France side. Of those eight debuts, Wakefield winger Tom Johnstone grabbed the headlines with a first half hat-trick, with Hull FC’s Jamie Shaul providing a solid first outing at fullback, splendidly assisting one of Johnstone’s tries with a kick through and having a try disallowed himself late on. Fellow debuantants Reece Lyne, Oliver Holmes, Adam Milner, Luke Thompson, Robbie Mulhern and Liam Sutcliffe all played a part in a convincing 44-6 win – in which England were 38-0 up at half time.
It was enjoyable, as any event watching your country should be, with the main orchestrator of that score-line being hooker Josh Hodgson, who kept the side ticking over. This was the Hull-born Hull FC academy product’s first England outing since rupturing his ACL in the World Cup semi against Tonga, and he slotted back in with ease. His speed, distribution, and team-mates’ ability to understand that raw Hull accent were all first class, which, and on the back of a dominant showing from the Burgess twins and James Graham, allowed Jake Connor to run the show in the first half. This publication has long built up the capability of the Airlie Birds maverick who, when he’s not winding up his opposition at least, is a calm and composed figure with the ball. Connor is modest – I don’t think he realises how good he actually is. He’s quality, as his second half try, numerous involvements before that, and exploits in Denver show.
Going back to the forwards James Graham was excellent, but that’s nothing new. What was apparent was his likability in these parts. He’s thoroughly respected regardless of club colours, with those of Wigan, St Helens, Warrington and the like on show. Personally Graham is a favourite, a player I just had to get a picture with when in Wollongong with Hull FC earlier this year, and a player that will give everything he’s got against the Kiwis. That’s the James Graham way – he doesn’t know any other and is testament to why he’s admired on both sides of the globe. Meanwhile the Burgess twins, whose sheer size is always a shock to the system, were always on top of France. Arguably a couple of seasons ago guilty of a stagnation in their career after a prominent rise to power, they were back to their best for South Sydney this year. George has ditched the mop on his head and Tom looks as powerful as ever. The face of Yorkshire if you like, their go-forward and muscle in the middle is pivotal to any success England hope to gain this autumn. I’m also a fan of Elliot Whitehead, who along with John Bateman, must make every Bradford supporter cry when they remanence of what could have been. If only they had a decent accountant, things might have been so different. But the Bulls are back in the Championship next year with lofty expectations.
France, with one eye on the upcoming European Championships, a pivotal cog in the hope of World Cup qualification, had some of their most prominent players missing. There was no Benjamin Garcia, Mark Khelleriah, Lucas Albert, Mikael Simon nor Gadwin Springer, who were all absent for one reason or another. Also Morgan Escare and Romain Navarette’s presence in the Grand Final just four days prior, not to mention their richly deserved alcohol consumption with Wigan, prevented their participation. Therefore it was no surprise England raced ahead. Quality told. One can credit France though with their second half effort which earned a 6-6 score. It’s a common theme that sides do muscle up after getting shafted in one half, but praise when it’s due and all that. If rugby league is ever to go ‘global’, then we need a strong France. They must build on Catalans’ Challenge Cup success.
For England it was a beneficial night, anything of course is better than training, but the contrast in competitiveness in both ours and New Zealand’s warm up fixture is insane. I pity any of you that haven’t seen the Kiwis v Kangaroos clash. It was brilliant. There’s also a realisation that we go into this test series under-strength. There’s no Slammin’ Sam, Luke Gale or Scott Taylor. Half back choices are thin, so the likes of George Williams and Sam Tomkins must prove their marquee status. There’s a lot at stake too. England won the last series against New Zealand, the Baskerville Shield back in 2015, and given that the Kiwis toppled us in the most recent Four Nations, there’s a score to be settled. They’ll want revenge for what happened in the United States too, and they have the likes of Shaun Johnson, Joesph Manu and Kodi Nikorima, who are all capable of causing England problems, at their disposal. Additionally there’s world rankings to be considered too. It’s all a little bit exciting.
England Starting XIII: 1. Jamie Shaul, 2. Tom Johnstone, 3. Reece Lyne, 4. Mark Percival, 5. Jermaine McGillvary, 6. Richie Myler, 7. Jake Connor, 8. James Graham, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. Tom Burgess, 11. Oliver Holmes, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. George Burgess. Interchange: 14. Adam Milner, 15. Luke Thompson, 16. Robbie Mulhern, 17. Liam Sutcliffe.
England Tries: T.Burgess, Johnstone 3, Myler, Thompson, Whitehead, Connor. Goals: Connor 5/7, Percival 1/1
France Starting XIII: 1. Stanislas Robin, 25. Paul Marcon, 4. Tony Gigot, 3. Bastien Ader, 5. Hakim Miloudi, 6. Theo Fages, 7. William Barthau, 10. Lambert Belmas, 23. Alrix Da Costa, 8. Bastien Canet, 12. Benjamin Jullien, 13. Mickael Goudemand, 24. Jason Baitieri. Interchange: 22. Anthony Marion, 14. Thibaud Margalet, 17. Valentin Yesa, 16. Bastien Escamilla.
France Tries: Fages. Goals: Barthau 1/1
Scoring System: 6-0, 10-0, 16-0, 22-0, 26-0, 32-0, 38-0, 44-0, 44-6
Referee: Chris Kendall