England v Wales
Leigh Sports Village Stadium, Leigh
Sunday, 12.30am AEST
With Australia and New Zealand going head to head in the heavyweight battle of the opening round of games, England can look forward to the much easier task of knocking over minnows Wales in their Four Nations opener on Saturday night.
Of course, nobody likes being written off but the fact of that matter is that a Wales victory in this one would count as one of the biggest rugby league upsets of all time. It’s unlikely to happen.
That’s not to say, however, that this clash counts for little as far as England is concerned. Although they reached the final the last time the Four Nations was held on home soil in 2009, it’s been a long time between drinks for the British who have never won a World Cup or Four Nations and are desperately hoping to reverse that trend.
Notably, their efforts to become a world power have seen them call on some southern hemisphere influence with NRL stars Chris Heighington and Jack Reed and former Dragon Rangi Chase all part of their squad.
Combined with the likes of Gareth Ellis, Adrian Morley and Canterbury-bound prop James Graham, England certainly appear far stronger than the squad that limped out of the tournament meekly 12 months ago and they will be keen to show what they’re capable of against Wales.
For the Welsh, this is more about planning for the future. The appointment of coach Iestyn Harris to the top job two years ago was a move designed to help them start the long and slow process of closing in on the top teams and although Harris himself admits qualifying for the 2011 Four Nations took even him by surprise, the signs are good that they are on the right track.
An upset 12-11 win over France in last year’s European Cup was enough to propel them into the Four Nations and they warmed up for the tough challenge ahead by downing Ireland 30-6 last weekend.
Captain Lee Briers, with 355 games for Warrington under his belt, is the key man for the Welsh but keep an eye on youngsters Rhys Williams, Elliott Kear, Ben Flower, Lloyd White and Gil Dudson who have all shown promise after being blooded by Harris in his time at the helm.
While Wales can expect to be cannon fodder for the big three of international rugby league over the coming weeks, a strong showing or two along the way would bode well for the nation’s future.
Watch Out Wales: England’s hulking forward pack is its strength and you can bet your last dollar that they will test the Welsh on the edges. Second-rowers Ben Westwood and Wests Tigers’ Gareth Ellis are both big, powerful runners of the football while lock Chris Heighington has also added plenty of starch to the pack where his high work rate will drive Wales mad. Expect England to make plenty of metres in this area.
Also, keep an eye on Brisbane Broncos centre Jack Reed. After a stunning rookie season in the NRL, he marked his Test debut in style last weekend with a thrilling 70-metre try against France.
Watch Out England: If there is one player who can create something from nothing for Wales it is 22-year-old fullback Elliot Kear. The promising young speedster has recently signed a three-year deal to join Super League giants Bradford from next season following the collapse of the Crusaders, with plenty predicting him to become one of the game’s genuine superstars. A former Wales Under-18s and Wales A rugby union representative, Kear has scored seven tries in seven Tests since debuting in late 2009.
The History: Played 67; England 49, Wales 16, drawn 2. Although these two British nations have locked horns on plenty of occasions since 1908, only three of those matches are considered full internationals. The three Tests were played in the 1975 World Series and the 1995 World Cup, with England holding a 2-1 advantage. All other encounters have been either friendlies or are considered ‘B’ internationals. Wales actually won the very first game contested between these two sides, 35-18, at Tonypandy way back in 1908; however England easily prevailed the last time they met in 2009 with a 48-12 win.
Conclusion: England will be disappointed if they don’t make a statement here and there is no reason why they shouldn’t come away with a big win. The fact that they have been able to leave veteran prop Adrian Morley and Melbourne Storm playmaker Gareth Widdop on the bench speaks volumes for the depth of their squad in this year’s event.
Wales, on the other hand, boast just four current Super League players although eight more were members of the recently failed Crusaders club. Their squad also boasts five Australians in Central Comets duo Chris Beasley and Ian Webster, Neil Budworth from Mackay Cutters, Mark Lennon from Thirroul Butchers and Cronulla youngster Tyson Frizell.
The Welsh are working hard to become a competitive force on the international scene but it will take time and they look out of their depth here.
Match Officials: Referee – Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Shane Rehm & Tim Roby; Video Referee – Ian Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, Sunday, 12.30am AEST.