So far in the World Cup, England have failed to hit the heights that many pundits and supporters were predicting them to achieve prior to the competition. So then, with head coach Wayne Bennett experimenting with his team's line-up heading into the last group match against France, many believed that England would simply scrape past an opponent whom - let's be honest - are amongst the worst in the competition. Yet, a great opening forty minutes and, overall, a competent display, has left Bennett with a number of selection headaches going into next week's quarter-finals against surprise package, Papua New Guinea.

The hooking solution

In one of my previous pieces, I emphasised how James Roby needs to start in front of the slow and laboured Josh Hodgson in the No.9 position.

Advertisements
Advertisements

So far I've been right; Roby's crisp passing out of acting half and his dynamic running game caused the French all sorts of problems. The long-serving Saints man repeatedly got England on the front foot and gave much better and quicker service to the new half-back pairing of Kevin Brown and Luke Gale. The latter, meanwhile, has often found himself the recipient of a great deal of criticism from England fans, but, he went a long way to silence them with a much-improved performance in the Perth humidity on Sunday morning.

Roby, moreover, plays what he sees and does not try to overplay, unlike Hodgson whose dithering and one-sided play has left England stuttering in attack in their opening two games. If England is to overcome their formidable PNG opponents next week, they need Roby to run the show and cause question marks in the Kumuls' defence; Hodgson, too often, telegraphs his play and restricts the side's go-forward.

Advertisements

Stick with Kevin Brown and Luke Gale

The inclusion of Kevin Brown in Wayne Bennett's England squad for the World Cup caused much head-scratching amongst England fans. After a dismal season with club Warrington Wolves - where they finished a disappointing ninth - and at the twilight of his career aged 33, his selection was a confusing one. And, with three other half-backs in the squad and after failing to register an appearance in the opening two games, it looked like Brown's selection was a mere token gesture.

Yet, with England's qualification in second place all-but confirmed, Brown was thrown into the mix. It proved to be an inspired decision as Brown, alongside Gale, ran the show in the first-half with the former's direct running enabling Gale to organise the team around the field. The duo linked up better than any other half-back pairing that Bennett has experimented with so far with the combinations and structures seeming more natural as Gale and Brown pulled the strings.

Advertisements

It was also an example of just how well the duo worked together that when Gale was taken off and replaced by George Williams in the second half, England lost much of their fluency and organisation on the field.

Full-back problem solved

The two games prior to the French fixture had revealed just how much England was missing Zak Hardaker at the back as neither Jonny Lomax nor Stefan Ratchford seemed comfortable on the big stage. With Gareth Widdop also struggling to cement a fluid partnership with Luke Gale in the halves, Bennett had nothing to lose in trying the St George Illawarra playmaker at fullback.

Again, it was a choice from which England reaped the rewards; Widdop's chiming into the line was perfect and his understanding with Gale and Brown - epitomised as early as the second minute as the three combined wonderfully for Widdop's effort - was vital in blowing away the French in the first half. It was no surprise therefore that every try that England scored - bar McGillvary's and England's last - was assisted by one of either Gale, Brown or Widdop. Widdop certainly seemed more at home at the back than in the halves.

Percival and Bateman

The St Helens' centre was unfortunate to miss out on a spot in the first two games, especially when considering that Bennett has played John Bateman - a natural second rower - in the centres. But, Percival was given an opportunity against France and showed why he must be partnered alongside Kallum Watkins in the centres. Percival is a classy player and his link-up play with winger Jermaine McGillvary was seamless; it seemed as though the two had played together for years.

It remains to be seen why Bennett keeps persevering with Bateman in the centres when his game is spoiled there; he is a direct and strong runner, but he is not a ball-handler - a facet which a centre needs to display consistently. Percival, instead, is brilliant with the ball and can create space for his winger like very few in the game. Does Bennett play Bateman there for his defence? If so, why? Percival is a fantastic defender and regularly stops his opposite number in his tracks.

Keep Walmsley and McMeeken on the team

Alex Walmsley has been a revelation for St Helens this season; he made the most metres in the whole of Super League and, in the two games he has been given an opportunity, he has taken his barnstorming form into the World Cup. His aggressive, direct and powerful running caused Lebanon problems last week and France problems this week; it takes at least three men to bring the towering forward down. And, with as many defenders as this taken out of the defensive line, Walmsley creates the space which allows his backs to run the opposition ragged. As England get to the business end of the competition, it is the Walmsley-type forwards that England needs to tire out the opposition.

Mike McMeeken has also been unlucky to miss out in the opening two games; with the 35-year-old, "over-the-hill" Australian, Chris Heighington starting in the second row, McMeeken has been patiently waiting in the wings for an opportunity. The Hampshire-born second rower didn't disappoint when finally given a chance on Sunday; his mighty frame attracted French defenders in numbers whenever he obtained the ball and, with a wicked offload and an aggression that belies his youthful age, he could well prove to be a hidden gem in the England team that could cause the so-called "bigger" teams problems down the line.

Headaches

With the four changes - Mike McMeeken, Scott Taylor, Mark Percival and Kevin Brown - all impressing and contributing greatly to this weekend's victory, Bennett has a few dilemmas to ponder over before the crunch clash with the Kumuls next weekend. What was glaringly obvious from the French game - although Les Tricolores are not exactly the best opponents to play against - is that the first-half spine of Widdop, Brown, Gale and Roby should be the fulcrum upon which England base its team around for the quarter-finals.

With these four in place, Ratchford should be replaced by Hall, and Bateman - once again - should be moved into the pack, perhaps in place of Ben Currie who has been quiet so far in the competition, with Watkins coming back into the side. Sam Burgess will no doubt feature - regardless of whether he is fully fit or not - and will likely start with McMeeken dropping to the bench. McMeeken should - though perhaps Bennett will revert back to Whitehead - keep his place in the squad despite Elliott Whitehead being rested; poor in the first two games, the former Bradford Bulls man does not deserve to replace the 23-year-old. George Williams, meanwhile, erratic and error-prone should be omitted from the 17 with Taylor taking his place on the bench.

A different proposition

Opponents PNG will, however, bring much more of a challenge to an England side that rarely got out of first gear and that was seemingly going through the motions in the second half. Whatever happens, England needs to be at the top of their game to progress to the semi-finals where their opponents will likely be a Tongan outfit. Purring after their historic victory over New Zealand, Tonga has to bypass a stubborn Lebanon team inspired by young, tricky half-back Mitchell Moses. Hopefully, regardless of the Tonga Lebanon result, Wayne Bennett can inspire the so far underwhelming England team to brush aside a formidable PNG side brimming with pace, power and excitement. #RLWC2017 #bbcrl #ENGvFRA