Rugby League World Cup: James Graham return timely for Steve McNamara's England

 

James Graham is back in the England team for the match against Ireland after being dropped for disciplinary reasons at the start of the World Cup.

Graham, rated one of the world's best forwards, was left out of the side that lost to Australia in the opening game last Saturday after being implicated in the breaking of the squad curfew that saw Gareth Hock kicked out of the tournament.

The England coach, Steve McNamara, has refused to explain his decision to leave out Graham, who plays in the NRL with the Canterbury Bulldogs.

The return of a front-rower of his calibre is timely, because England will be without Sam Burgess at Huddersfield, thanks to a one-match suspension for a high tackle on Australia's Sam Thaiday. In other changes, Josh Charnley and Lee Mossop are rested. Tom Briscoe comes in on the wing in place of Charnley, who also has a slight shoulder problem, whilst Sean O'Loughlin is fit to be included after recovering from an Achilles strain.

It is Graham, however, who will be under the greatest scrutiny. He was well below his best in the pre-tournament defeat by Italy but, well though England's forwards played against Australia, his absence left a gap. "The additions to the squad this week will add impetus and freshness to the team," McNamara said.

Paul Sculthorpe, who captained Graham for Great Britain and St Helens, has predicted that his return will produce an immediate impact. "Jammer [Graham] will be mega-disappointed and filthy with himself, because it's not often you get to play Australia in a World Cup as home nation, but I'm sure he's learnt from it," Sculthorpe said. "It will have been enough punishment to sit there and watch the boys walk out.

"I know Jammer and he wants to play. He's a competitor and he's looking forward to putting all this behind him with a big performance."

The match has been a sell-out for over a week, which is some indication of how uplifting the opening stages of the tournament have been.

The opening double-header at Cardiff was the best-attended first fixture of any World Cup, the ground record was broken for Fiji and Ireland at Rochdale, Workington had its biggest crowd for almost 20 years to see Scotland and Tonga, while there were more than 7,000 at Bristol, well off the rugby league map, for the USA's victory over the Cook Islands on Wednesday night.

It can only have helped that every match so far has been competitive for most of its 80 minutes. TV viewing figures have also been encouraging, with a 20-minute breakdown of the satellite link from Bristol the only glitch of the event so far.

The chairman of the RFL, Brian Barwick, has hailed the success of the first week. "You've got to get off to a flying start. If you do that you've got a real chance," he said. "I'm so pleased for the people who have worked so hard to bring it here and make it work."

The Australia coach, Tim Sheens, will give five players their first taste of the tournament against Fiji. Jarryd Hayne, Michael Jennings, Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papili and Boyd Cordner are all included for the match at St Helens.

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