Tonight could mark the changing of the guard for English rugby league. After the embarrassment of last year's World Cup, most, if not all, of the revamped young side that will play France at the Stade Jean-Bouin will be at this autumn's Four Nations – provided they get the job done this evening.
In the absence of long-established players like Paul Wellens, Ade Gardner, Martin Gleeson, Keith Senior and Leon Pryce, it is time for the new generation to make their mark.
The England coach, Tony Smith, is even willing to pick out individuals. "I'm excited by the half-backs and the way they have been combining," he says of the 19-year-old Richie Myler and Danny McGuire, a veteran of 26. "If they play together anything like the way they have been training, I'll be delighted."
Smith identified the Salford scrum-half Myler as part of his plans last season, playing him in the World Cup warm-up against Wales before he made his Super League debut, although without intending to take him to Australia for the tournament. "He's a talent and I'm not surprised at the way he has developed this season," Smith said.
A player like Shaun Briscoe has had to wait a little longer for recognition at this level. Capped three times, this is the Hull KR full-back's first match as his country's first choice. "You can tell this is the top level when you're rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley and learning from the way they conduct themselves," Briscoe said. "It's a great honour and definitely the highlight of my career so far."
The dynamics of this squad are such that, although Briscoe is new, he is a senior player. "I was talking to Danny McGuire and it's strange," he admits, "because we're the oldest players in the backs at 26 – that's how much youth there is."
There is also a wider variety of Super League clubs represented, including Rovers and Huddersfield, who have two players apiece after having none at the World Cup. "There's a better spread of talent, which is a big tick for the salary cap," Briscoe said.
He also warns against under-estimating the French, despite the number of players they will have missing. "Thomas Bosc is no mug and Jean-Philippe Baile has been good for the Catalans all season. They will have other Catalans players around them and, although their league position isn't as good as it was last season, they will play with pride and passion."
Briscoe believes that can only be enhanced by a man he grew up watching from the terraces at Wigan. Bobbie Goulding might have been a jaw-dropping choice as France coach, but Briscoe said he has unique assets. "I remember him as a passionate player who wore his heart on his sleeve and that will transfer itself to his coaching. They will have pride in that French shirt and we have to match that." Goulding said he is unconcerned about the result, provided his players show the same commitment in the match that they have in training. As a former half-back himself, he knows that much will depend on Mickael Murcia, making his debut at the age of 28. "I've seen him three or four times and he's a very good organiser. He's got a good kicking game and he gets a team around the field well," Goulding said.
The player who really excites him, however, is the 19-year-old scrum-half on the bench, William Barthau. "He's only a baby and he hasn't played a first-grade game yet. But he's going to be something special and could be in the squad for the next 15 years."
Goulding said Smith is right to put his faith in youth and that, in players like James Roby, James Graham, Myler, Joe Westerman and Michael Shenton, England have the nucleus of a team for years ahead – and one that could beat Australia. He would just prefer that they did not show their full potential here tonight.
FRANCE: Villegas (Toulouse); Vaccaro (Catalans), Baile (Catalans), Planas (Toulouse), Duport (Catalans); Bosc (Catalans), Murcia (Limoux); Guisset (Catalans, capt), Bentley (Catalans), Casty (Catalans), Gossard (Catalans), Mounis (Catalans), Anselme (Toulouse)
Substitutes: Martins (Pia), Gagliazzo (Carcassonne), Griffi (Toulouse), Barthau (UTC)
ENGLAND: Briscoe (Hull KR); Fox (Hull KR), Shenton (Castleford), Atkins (Wakefield), Hall (Leeds); McGuire (Leeds), Myler (Salford); Morley (Warrington), Roby (St Helens), Graham (St Helens), Peacock (Leeds, capt), Hock (Wigan), Westwood (Warrington)
Substitutes: Burgess (Bradford), Crabtree (Huddersfield), Moore (Huddersfield), Clubb (Harlequins)
Referee: J.Maxwell (Australia)Reuse content