NRL Roundtable: England & Scotland
With the Four Nations tournament getting underway this weekend, we look at the prospects of host nation England and underdogs Scotland as they prepare to face New Zealand and Australia respectively.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each side, and who are the players to watch?
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): In today's roundtable chat we're talking England and Scotland ahead of the Four Nations, starting this weekend. Let's kick things off with the hosts. Just how good is the England forward pack?
Tony Webeck (Chief Queensland Correspondent): It's big, I'll give it that, but is big always better?
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): Sure, but they have a lot of skill players as well, like Graham and Whitehead who can move the ball around.
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): Well James Graham is in the conversation for world's best prop, and Sam Burgess for world's best lock, so that's a fair start.
Jack Brady (National Correspondent): Considering they have to try and fit John Bateman, Liam Farrell and Chris Hill into their 17, it's very good.
TW: I rate Chris Hill highly. Reckon he could come to the NRL and be a very good contributor straight away. Excellent foil for the likes of Sammy B and Jammer.
AB: And Josh Hodgson, well he is pretty handy at No.9 too. So I say it is a pretty decent pack.
JB: Coach Wayne Bennett had a fullback, five-eighth and hooker on his bench against France so I'm expecting bulk changes when it comes to their makeup. Daryl Clark is an excellent foil for Hodgson while we're at it.
TW: Clark was Super League's best player in 2014. So yes, creativity around the ruck rolling behind those big bodies won't be an issue.
CK: If the Burgess twins can produce something like their best and some of the other senior guys like Hill and Farrell and Elliott Whitehead produce, they're certainly not giving a lot away. Andy just beat me to the punch on Hodgson but he'd be close to the form No.9 in the world right now just behind Smith so across the board it's very good.
DB: So they're strong up front, but do England have the backs and the depth to match Australia and New Zealand?
AB: Well Ryan Hall has scored 28 tries in 28 appearances for England and he has certainly played very well against Australia over in England in the past. I remember him steamrolling Billy Slater on the way to the try line, the run broke Billy's collarbone from memory. Very hard to stop. Scored twice last start against France.
CK: Aussie fans will by now be familiar with the exploits of Hall who's one of the best finishers and wingers in the sport. Kallum Watkins is an out and out gun. With no Tomkins or Hardaker they'll have a new face at fullback and I think this could potentially be an area they give a bit of ground to the Aussies but Johnny Lomax threw a wonderful cut-out ball for a try in their warm-up game.
AB: Yes, in the game against France, Lomax played very similar to Darius Boyd, sweeping around the back and creating the extra man. No coincidence there with Wayne Benett as coach. They had a lot of movement against France and created a lot of chances out wide.
JB: Dan Sarginson is to come back into the England 17 too you'd imagine (most likely for Ryan Percival). He played at the 2014 Four Nations – debuted against Australia from memory – and was one of their best. Sarginson of course is en route to Australia next year to play for the Titans for those playing at home. Fun fact: Sarginson was born in Australia and his father is a Kiwi, meaning he can play for three of the four nations at this tournament.
TW: Gareth Widdop will have to be a LOT better than he was for the Dragons this year to spark the England attack.
CK: Widdop looked very good from what I saw of the warm-up game. I think the new environment will help him. It remains to be seen if Luke Gale gets the starting No.7 jersey or if someone like George Williams or Kevin Brown gets a go but Widdop has looked more attack-minded already.
JB: The No.7 is Gale's for the taking. George Williams was the incumbent up until last week's Test against France but Gale looks to have been finally rewarded for his amazing form these past two years. He's won the Albert Goldthorpe Medal in both those years – essentially their best and fairest award.
TW: The greatest advantage that the Kangaroos possess is in the kicking game. Reckon that could be an issue for all the other three teams, although Danny Brough is very competent for the Scots.
CK: As is Hodgson who we've mentioned. I don't think any of the teams comes close to the Roos' 6-7-9 in overall kicking quality though.
DB: We've talked players but two other factors in England's favour are home ground advantage and Wayne Bennett. How much do they boost their chances?
TW: Traditionally the Kangaroos respond really well to the atmosphere created at those wonderful English grounds, but the Bennett influence can't be underestimated.
AB: England are a different proposition at home. They've made the final of the Four Nations the last two times they've hosted the tournament, beating New Zealand on both occasions. They also recently beat New Zealand 2-1 in a series, which had no Sam Burgess or Shaun Johnson.
CK: We know what Bennett's capable of but how that gels with the England set-up is a bit of an unknown quantity so far. England's supposed home ground advantage hasn't tended to stop the Aussies dominate in the UK previously either.
TW: Sam Burgess will be back to his best under Bennett. He'll be England's talisman and the rest of the squad will follow his lead. Bennett worked out very quickly that was where the heart of this team lay.
Did I mention I'm a fan of Sam Burgess?
AB: And the atmosphere at the England grounds needs to be experienced to be believed. They ride such an emotional wave over there. The England v NZ World Cup semi-final at Wembley is the greatest game I've ever seen live. They'll be very hard to beat over there.
DB: Let's look at Scotland, who scored nine tries in their warm-up game – albeit not against top-level opposition. Who are their players to watch?
CK: The above-mentioned Danny Brough is a former Man of Steel. He'll be a key man.
JB: Danny Brough. The heart and soul of Scotland.
AB: They qualified by topping European qualifying, beating France, Ireland and Wales who are all ranked above them in the world rankings. But it is very hard to see them causing an upset in this tournament. It is a big step up in class. Hopefully they can push the other teams and make a real fist of it.
CK: The NRL players we're all familiar with. I'm assuming Lachlan Coote will displace Matty Russell from the fullback role which could be interesting.
TW: Brough was just about player of the World Cup in 2013 and recently kept Huddersfield in Super League almost single-handedly. Lachlan Coote could be a handy foil for him but it's a shame they don't have Peter Wallace, that could have really given them something to work with.
AB: Danny Addy is a handy hooker. And Adam Walker has been a mainstay in their squad at prop. His twin brother is missing from the team list though.
CK: Centre pairing of Euan Aitken and Kane Linnett is pretty reasonable.
JB: Matty Russell will feature on the wing for Scotland with Coote's inclusion. As you said though it's disappointing Peter Wallace isn't available. Same goes Keith Galloway.
CK: Winger Lewis Tierney is coming off a premiership win with Wigan and scored a try in their big warm-up romp.
JB: Keep an eye out for Tyler Cassel too. Been in the Wests Tigers system for a long time and while he is yet to play in the NRL, will go close to doing so next year. A big tournament for Scotland could very well kick-start his NRL career.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent, making a late cameo): He was players' player in the ISP this year (Cassel).
AB: They have a HUGE ask up first against the Kangaroos. No-one expects them to win the game, but hopefully they can get a good start and push the Australians early. To go 80 minutes against this green and gold side is going to be a really tough ask.
CK: To be honest I can't see them getting close to the Aussies. I'm expecting a big scoreline and I can't really see them troubling NZ or England either.
AB: Interestingly they've never played against England. I find that very odd.
JB: What may work in Scotland's favour though is a lack of cohesion for the Aussies. Considering Mal Meninga is expected to hand a lot of players their debuts.
TW: Their clash against England will be something special. I understand there is a little bit of history between the two nations.
AB: Andy Murray Cup?
TW: I'm with Jack, I reckon they can give a good account of themselves in the first 40-50 minutes before the Aussies run away with things.
DB: Any quick predictions for how England and Scotland will fare in this tournament? Can England make the final? Can Scotland win a game?
AB: I think England can definitely make the final, perhaps even win it. Australia will be favourites, but can easily see England beating New Zealand and if things go their way, they could cause a massive boilover.
JB: Considering how ordinary New Zealand were in Perth, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if it's an Australia v England final.
TW: New Zealand were pretty disappointing in Perth, I think England can knock them over this weekend. Do that and they are one significant step towards the final.
CK: England can make the final, and probably will if they beat NZ in their round robin game. I don't think Scotland can win a game. I don't really see the Aussies dropping a game, including the final, but both England and NZ can spring an upset on their day.
JB: England have the wood over the Kiwis at the minute considering their three-Test series victory over them last year.
AB: They pushed Australia in the last two Four Nations finals for 60 minutes, until the Kangaroos powered away both times. They've proven they can hang with the Kangaroos over there, even in the opening game of the 2013 World Cup they pushed the Kangaroos. They were the only team to score tries against them in the whole tournament! They certainly have a shot at it, which would be great for the game of rugby league.
TW: Scotland won't win a game but this is the first step these nations need to take in becoming internationally competitive. Will be great for the development of the game there regardless of results.
DB: OK cheers fellas, that'll do us.