England halves' fine first impression
First-time pairing Gareth Widdop and Matty Smith can establish themselves as England's long-term halves combination if they can engineer a win over Australia in Melbourne on Sunday and end the Kangaroos' defence of their Four Nations crown.
Having played for the Storm for four years, it will be something of a homecoming for Widdop when the England team arrives in Melbourne on Thursday and his combination with halfback Smith an integral part of his team's preparation.
Despite having never met until the team came into camp two weeks ago, the class of Widdop and Smith – not to mention Widdop's impeccable goal-kicking – proved the difference in their 32-26 win over Samoa on Saturday with Widdop's vision and Smith's kicking game complementing each other superbly.
After two exceptional seasons with Wigan 27-year-old Smith finally earned his first Test cap against Samoa but Widdop says they need to build on their first outing together against a Kangaroos team smarting from their loss to the Kiwis.
"I've known of Matty, I've never played with him before but we've been roommates since he's come out here," Widdop said. "Your halves are key factors to any side so the more time we can spend together and get a feel for each other is going to help.
"He's that type of [organisational] player. He's your typical halfback, he likes to control the game and control the structures and push the boys around which helps and certainly allows me to play a little bit more.
"At half-time I think we'd only played the ball 30 or so times compared to their 70 ad they had a completion rate of 90 per cent and on the back of that to manage to get five tries is a positive and we're certainly going to have to build on that next week."
England coach Steve McNamara said that although his new-look halves had some areas to work on as a combination, they displayed enough to suggest that they will wear the No.6 and No.7 for England for the forseeable future.
"They're going to get better as they go along. They've only known each other the week I don't think they'd even met each other before this week so I'm sure they're going to be pretty important for us going forward," McNamara said.
"I'm pleased with them; there were some areas where we let ourselves down but you get that from experience and playing with each other and next week, injuries permitting and looking at the game in terms of reviewing it, they'll get that second chance to improve."
Basic errors put England under enormous pressure against a Samoa team desperate to prove they are no longer rugby league minnows but the contributions of their halves, debutant hookers and fullback Sam Tomkins was evidence enough that they have a healthy spine from which to build.
Tomkins continually came up with brave defensive plays under wave after wave of attack from Samoa, putting his body on the line time and again and coming up with England's final try that would prove to be the match-winner.
Canberra bound Josh Hodgson looked comfortable in his first Test appearance while Super League Man of Steel came up with one of the most eye-catching first touches in international rugby league, cutting the Samoa marker defence to shreds and setting up the opening try for Michael Shenton.
"They will learn a tremendous amount out of that. No matter how many times you tell them and make them understand what a Test match is about they've got to really experience it," McNamara said of England's new faces.
"I was pleased with the whole group; we all know we can play a lot better than that, we understand that, but to overcome some adversity and some really tough periods of the game, all of those boys on debut... We've got two hookers there, our halfback and our captain missed out was someone who would have played loose forward for us so they're really key pivotal roles so you just can't buy that kind of experience."
Clark's effectiveness was somewhat muted after half-time after suffering a lower back injury on the stroke of half-time when he was bent back awkwardly in a tackle, Widdop hopeful that he will recover in time to take his place against Australia.
"He's a great player and came straight on and gave us that impact that we needed and hopefully he'll be right because we certainly want him in our team," Widdop said.