No sooner had the domestic rugby league season concluded at Old Trafford yesterday than attention switched to the international scene. The first task of the England coach, Steve McNamara, will be to finalise his squad for the Four Nations tournament later this month, and he is bound to draw heavily on the ranks of the two Grand Finalists.
Automatic choices from St Helens are the Australia-bound James Graham, James Roby and Jon Wilkin. There is healthy competition in the centres but Michael Shenton will come into the reckoning, despite not being the most eye-catching specialist in the position.
The other Saint who deserves to be included is the uncapped 21-year-old Jonny Lomax. He has been a revelation as their regular scrum-half this season, but he also has considerable utility value.
A couple of weeks ago Leedsfailed to get a single player into the Super League Dream Team. Even allowing for the vagaries of the selection process, it was an almighty comedown for the Rhinos. McNamara's squad will tell a rather different story.
Apart from restoring Jamie Peacock to the captaincy, the England coach can hardly have failed to be impressed by the late-season form of several other candidates. Ryan Hall has been back to his best on the left wing, while what might be termed the old guard of Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan were all back to their best during the run-up to the Grand Final.
Sinfield looks to be in a particularly strong position in the absence of Wigan's loose-forward Sean O'Loughlin, who withdrew from contention this week in order to have a hip operation, but McNamara can also hardly have missed just how effective Burrow has been off the bench in recent weeks.
Selection is complicated this year by the influx of English-qualified players from overseas, for whichMcNamara is responsible. Since drafting in Gareth Widdop – Halifax-born but Melbourne-based – last year, the hunt has been on for players with similar credentials.
That search has yielded Jack Reed, an impressive Brisbane Broncos centre, who was born in Yorkshire but whose family emigrated to Australia when he was two. He has shown his commitment to the land of his birth by opting for England rather than trying to play State of Origin. Equally keen is the Wests Tigers' back-row forward Chris Heighington, whose father was born in County Durham.
But the real coup – or the step too far, depending on your point of view – is Rangi Chase. There is no disputing that Chase is an outstanding player; he was named this week as Man of Steel, voted the best in Super League by his peers.
The difference is that Chase is pure Kiwi – he has played for the Junior Kiwis and the NZ Maori – and qualifies not through family links but merely by being resident here for the past three years.
There is no doubt that the regulations covering international sport, not just rugby league, allow him to play for England. If you were a young English stand-off and a genuine product of the game in this country, however, you might look at an Australian and a New Zealander ahead of you in the queue and wonderwhether there was any point inhaving international ambitions.
Australia and New Zealand, who meet in Newcastle, New South Wales next Sunday before flying here for the Four Nations, have already named their squads, and there are plenty of indications of how strong they are both going to be.
The Kangaroos will be led by that perennial thorn in British flesh Darren Lockyer, whose farewell to rugby league this will be. Names such as Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Johnathon Thurston and Cameron Smith are further reminders of the dangers that lie in store.
The New Zealand Warriors reached the NRL Grand Finals in all three grades last weekend – some indication of the current depth of talent in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The prospect of seeing Benji Marshall line up against Lockyer in the opening match of the tournament at Warrington on 28 October is a mouth-watering one, as is the first sight over here of new Kiwis such as Kevin Locke and Kieran Foran.
It all looks a rather big ask for Wales, who play England at Leigh the following day. There is a shortage of Welsh-qualified players with the right level of experience, although they do expect to have the talismanic Gareth Thomas fit after his broken arm.Reuse content