McNamara expects Australian exiles to inspire convincing start
Despite the absurd timing and the opposition's relative weakness, Steve McNamara's first match in charge is an important marker-post for the England team.
They will finish their Test against France at Leigh around 30 minutes before that other England side kick off in Rustenburg – which should ensure it is watched only by true aficionados.
Leeds, who supply four players, are also going ahead with their Super League fixture at Harlequins, thus taking their fans out of the equation. It is as close to playing an international in private as the Rugby League could manage.
For all that, it is the most significant of evenings for the new regime and a test of McNamara's core principles – such as his belief that you should always play your strongest side, even if that means bringing three players halfway round the world. McNamara feels that Australia are superior because their key players are familiar with each other, thanks in part to the Origin series.
The RFL cannot duplicate that here, but they can insist on getting players released by Australian clubs. Hence the presence of Gareth Ellis, Sam Burgess and Gareth Widdop tonight.
Burgess has been just as successful at South Sydney as Ellis has at Wests Tigers, where Mark Flanagan has also made the sort of impact that marks him as a possible future international. "The more English players we have out there, the less likely we are to be overawed," says Ellis. "The Australians are only human. They make mistakes like anyone else."
If the Four Nations meetings with Australia and New Zealand this autumn are already playing on English minds, they will want to dismiss the lesser challenge of France convincingly tonight.
It is worth remembering that France, enthused by Bobbie Goulding, led 12-4 at half-time when the two sides last met, in last autumn's Four Nations.
That was a stronger team than the current one, which is deprived by injuries of Thomas Bosc, the outstanding talent, and Jean-Philippe Baile. Things look particularly dicey at half-back, where they field the untried combination of Tony Gigot and Nicolas Munoz.
France still have an all-Catalan Dragons pack, however, including the likes of David Ferriol and Remy Casty, who will certainly prove combative at prop.
Meanwhile, Lee Briers made up for the absence of Warrington's England players as he guided them to within two points of Wigan at the top of the Super League with a 35-16 win over Hull KR last night. The veteran half-back scored two tries and landed five goals and a drop goal to help wear down Rovers' resistance.
Teams (Leigh Sports Village, kick-off 5.15pm): England: G Widdop (Melbourne); T Briscoe (Hull), C Bridge (Warrington), M Shenton (Castleford), R Hall (Leeds); K Brown (Huddersfield), S Tomkins (Wigan); J Graham (St Helens), K Sinfield (Leeds), J Peacock (Leeds, capt), G Ellis (Wests Tigers), S Burgess (South Sydney), S O'Loughlin (Wigan). Replacements: J Roby (St Helens), A Morley (Warrington), B Westwood (Warrington), J Tomkins (Wigan).
France: C Villegas (Toulouse); N Piquemal (Lezignan), C Gossard (Catalans), S Raguin (Catalans), F Vaccari (Catalans); T Gigot (Catalans), N Munoz (Lezignan), D Ferriol (Catalans), G Mounis (Catalans), R Casty (Catalans), O Elima (Catalans, capt), J Fakir (Catalans), A Bentley (Catalans). Replacements: W Barthau (Catalans), M Griffi (Toulouse), F Quintilla (Lezignan), M Simon (Catalans), Y Tisseyre (Toulouse), J Touxagas (Catalans).
Referee: L Williamson (New Zealand).
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