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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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England must strike a blow for RL

THERE’S only one rugby game – league or union – which can reasonably take top billing this weekend.

It’s England v Australia at Wembley Stadium on November 5. Fireworks are expected on the pitch with England tweaking the Kangaroos’ tail just as they used to do at the old Twin Towers.

And, for all the Kangaroo superstars, many eyes will be on one elusive Englishmen – Sam Tomkins – our rugby equivalent of the scarlet pimpernel. Will the Aussies seek and destroy him on Saturday?

It was against Whitehaven, at Wigan’s JJB Stadium four years ago, that young Sam effect-ively stamped his mark on the professional RL world. He proved Haven’s Challenge Cup torm-entor-in-chief, scorching in for five tries as Wigan racked up 108 points to Whitehaven’s eight.

I named Sam man-of-the-match on behalf of nuclear sponsors – no contest really even though Aussie aces Trent Barrett and Pat Richards also enjoyed a scoring fest.

I wrote that a star was born that night – Sam Tomkins could become the next Sean Long – in those intervening four years he’s certainly gone a long way towards emulating the three-times Lance Todd trophy winner who this week, believe it or not, joined Preston Grasshoppers to play the other code, aged 35. But Long, incidentally, has a long term league ambition: to coach England!

One of Long’s finest moments was master-minding England’s triumph over Australia in Sydney in 2006. Can his fellow countrymen do the Four Nations trick at the national stadium on Saturday? It’s important they do.

It’s another chance to beat the Aussies on the big stage. Unlike the days when the likes of Hanley, Offiah, Edwards and Jonathan Davies were helping Great Britain beat the Aussies at Wembley (first Tests at least) there may be only around 40,000 in the stadium on Saturday but the global audience will run into millions.

So this is not only an acid test for England but also a great opportunity to take some national rugby glory after the World Cup ignominy of their union counterparts. While England will need to raise their game collectively to cut down the Kangaroos, will some key individuals be able to match the Aussies for world class?

For the sake of argument, would Sam Tomkins be good enough to make the Australian starting line-up, especially after his four-try performance against Wales?

If so, where to play him? Is Sam better in his accustomed position of full-back than the brilliant Billy Slater. Could he oust Darren Lockyer at stand-off, even though the peerless Kangaroo playmaker is hanging up his boots at the end of the tournament?

Just yet the answer to both questions is probably ‘no’ – there might be a case for playing Tomkins at scrum-half in place of the tactically astute Johnathan Thurston but the jury will have to go out on that one. Saturday might answer some pertinent questions.

If Sam Tomkins does excel then it will also further excite the interest of our top union clubs, especially as brother Joel is apparently set to sign for Saracens – hence his absence from the England squad.

This is a continuing battle for league now that the cross-code cycle has turned full circle. As Sam Tomkins himself admits: “It’s not all about money, the international stage in union far outweighs anything in rugby league.”

Owen Farrell, 20, is union’s ‘next big thing’ currently hitting the headlines as a match winner for Saracens, whose head coach is his father, RL legend Andy Farrell.

Kyle Eastmond, latterly of St Helens, may eventually play in the same England RU side as Farrell if he makes the grade under Sir Ian McGeechan at Bath. Sonny Bill Williams has opted to remain in New Zealand rugby union for at least another year after his All Blacks World Cup exploits rather than opt for riches elsewhere – a move which one of the All Blacks coaches reckons will soon make him the world’s best rugby player of either code.

There’s going to be some interesting contenders. Will a will-o-the-wisp Englishman be one of them? But for now it’s down to the national team to strike a blow for rugby league, raise the game’s profile immensely and go a long way to staking a place in the Four Nations final on November 19 – not at Wembley but Elland Road, Leeds.

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