International rugby league looks to be on the cusp of its most interesting period in decades. With Australia’s golden generation bowing out, Tonga’s emergence as a powerhouse and New Zealand bouncing back after a dismal World Cup, there could be a real battle for dominance in the Southern Hemisphere.
That also leaves England with a chance of establishing themselves and the ambition to lift the World Cup on home soil in 2021. They were agonisingly close in Brisbane last year, and now they have a test series against New Zealand to begin that rebuilding process.
At one point the series looked to be a formality after England comprehensively beat the Kiwis in Denver, but that’s all changed following New Zealand’s shock win against Australia last weekend, which ended the Kangaroo’s 13 game winning run.
While England enjoy home advantage, injuries have depleted the squad and ruled out some household names. English fans won’t be able to see NRL stars Sam Burgess and Gareth Widdop return home, while Ryan Hall is deprived of one last hurrah in Leeds, before he heads down under next season.
That also leaves the so-called Wall of White with some major holes. There’s always been a struggle for creativity in the English ranks, but the lack of Widdop and Luke Gale through injury is a worry. Richie Myler has been called up as the only recognised half-back but, after spending a year in a struggling Leeds Rhinos side, his pick seems out of desperation.
It does leave a chance for some players to prove themselves, however. George Williams’ continued good form with Wigan Warriors will finally be rewarded with a spot he wasn’t able to get during last year’s World Cup and, after a couple of years of knocking on the door, Jake Connor will be hopeful of a place in England’s starting 13.
England’s forwards also remain a formidable prospect, even without Sam Burgess. Wayne Bennett will be hoping that this is where the series will be won, although it will be a battle even with the pack boasting vast experience.
That’s because while England lack consistency in the halves, New Zealand have a bonafide superstar. Shaun Johnson is one of the biggest names in the sport and he has a history tormenting recent English sides. After his last minute try at Wembley during the 2013 World Cup, he effectively knocked them out of the 2016 Four Nations with a crucial drop goal. Even if England are wary of his threat, so far they have been powerless to stop him.
Away from Johnson, this Kiwi side is littered with other stars of the NRL. There’s the tryscoring prowess of Jordan Rapana, but also the grunt of Jesse Bromwich and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – on their day any of the three could stake their claim as the best in the world in their respective positions, and England will be desperate to minimise their influence.
This is a series that truly hangs in the balance and when it kicks off on Saturday afternoon few will be confident in their predictions. New Zealand may be favourites, but expect the Baskerville Shield to still be up for grabs when the teams get to Elland Road in three week’s time.
Words: Matthew Smith | Subbing: George Robson