It could be easy for England to rest on their laurels on take victory against Ireland in today’s game at Huddersfield as a given, but do they have any laurels to rest on?
Defeat to Australia last week means that both remaining games are must-wins if they are to secure second place in their group, and with that a favourable quarter-final draw.
Judging by his squad selection, coach Steve McNamara clearly isn’t taking anything for granted. It would have perhaps been understandable if he had rotated the squad and given the fringe players a run-out against, theoretically, the weakest side in the group.
However, whilst this should be an easy England victory on paper, Ireland will be desperate to make an impact after a poor performance against Fiji.
They are also likely to have the backing of a large and raucous support base at a sold-out John Smith’s Stadium.
Maybe McNamara would have rotated had we beaten Australia last week, who knows? But the salient facts are these; we need four points to finish second in the group, we currently have none and to get four points we must win both of our remaining games.
Three changes have been made to last week’s squad; Wigan Warriors duo Josh Charnley and Lee Mossop make way along with South Sydney Rabbitohs forward Sam Burgess. Another Warrior, Sean O’Loughlin, comes in as well as former St Helens forward James Graham and Leeds Rhinos winger Tom Briscoe.
These changes come as no surprise; Burgess is suspended, Charnley has a knock on his shoulder and Mossop’s display off the bench last week was riddled with indiscipline and errors.
O’Loughlin should start in place of Burgess at loose-forward, the position he would have surely taken up against Australia were he not injured. Briscoe is also a natural replacement for Charnley on the wing.
The quandary for McNamara comes in the shape of Graham, who was allegedly left out of last week’s squad as a result of the drinking session which resulted in Gareth Hock being thrown out of the squad all together.
There is no doubt that Graham is a star performer and the team will certainly not be any worse with him in it. However, barring his way into the front row are the sizeable stature of Chris Hill and George Burgess.
Burgess would have probably started anyway after his sensational breakthrough year in the NRL, but Hill took the spot in the front row that was probably earmarked for Graham last week and performed admirably.
Both Hill and Burgess regularly punched holes in a usually water-tight Australian defence. One can only imagine the damage they could do to an Irish defence that looked remarkably leaky against Fiji.
They were so dangerous in possession and their ball-carrying ability had the Australians running scared; only full-back Sam Tomkins (116) made more metres last week than Hill (103) and Burgess (97).
Hill and Burgess may not be as well known or experienced as Graham but both deserve to keep their places on merit, so the route to Graham’s preferred position is blocked.
If McNamara was desperate to find a spot for the Canterbury Bulldogs star in his side, he could re-jig his second row to accommodate him, but he faces a similar problem there.
There will only really be one back row spot open, with Ben Westwood locking the other one down. Brett Ferres filled the role last week and was another outstanding performer, especially considering he wasn’t even in the original squad for the tournament.
No-one in white made more tackles last week than Ferres (36), with Westwood not far behind with 33.
Despite Ferres’ heroics in the opener, you feel that his spot may be under threat to Sam Burgess, the best forward in world rugby, when he returns from suspension.
So it appears Graham’s route to the England team is blocked for now. I’m sure he will feature at some point on Saturday, but whether or not he starts the match is open to much debate.
I am sure that the ginger-haired steamroller will get his chance to shine in this World Cup, but he will have to be patient to get it.
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