Gareth Widdop looks to be the people’s choice for England in the halfbacks for this year’s Four Nations championship. But who should partner the St George-Illawarra Dragons stand-off? Love Rugby League takes a look at six possible contenders…
Ratchford has become something of an enigma over the past couple of seasons. Clearly a hugely talented rugby player, one senses that he is yet to really settle into a position of his own. He has not been helped that much by being played in almost every position on the field this season. He has completed 84 runs from dummy half and made 54 tackle busts this season, stats that show he can handle the physical challenges of the game.
Doubts remain about his ability to move a team around the park, but playing alongside Widdop might free him from that worry. Perhaps bulking up a little and turning himself into a classy, ball-playing 13 might be a long-term plan. His talent certainly deserves better than to be treated as a utility player.
2. Marc Sneyd
The Castleford scrum half has shown some real class this season, and has been a major part of the Tigers’ attractive brand of rugby. The Challenge Cup final perhaps showed that the Oldham-born youngster is not quite ready, yet, for the test arena, where any nerves would be ruthlessly exposed.
Surrounded by experienced heads, however, the 23-year-old could blossom. He is also Super League‘s top goalkicker this season, slotting 95 goals, which is actually 25 more than Sinfield has managed in 2014. He has carried the ball 248 times for 1256 metres, and has kicked one 40/20.
3. Matty Smith
The former Everton FC youth player is blossoming into a good all-round scrum-half. Going quietly about his business in a Wigan team stacked with big stars, Smith tops the drop goal charts this season with five. He has also kicked 90 goals, but has only crossed the whitewash for three tries. The former St Helens man has shown time and again with Wigan that he has the temperament for big games, and he could be the perfect foil for Widdop. Whether Steve McNamara sees it that way remains to be seen.
He has made 231 carries this season, gaining 771 metres, and made only two offloads. Significantly perhaps, he has kicked four 40/20s, second only to Huddersfield’s Scotland international Danny Brough, who has nine to his name.
4. Chris Bridge
Like his Warrington team-mate Ratchford, Bridge has excelled as a utility player this season. Although nominally a centre these days, the former Ireland international has turned out in the halves as well as at loose forward and second row. Indeed, Warrington have sometimes played their best rugby with him operating in the halves.
He is a useful man to have in the squad, simply for his sheer versatility, whether he is a test halfback, though, is a moot point. He has scored 11 tries and kicked 67 goals so far in 2014, as well as carrying the ball 291 times for 1773 metres. Bridge has plenty of experience and excellent game sense, but whether he could translate his club form onto the international scene remains in question. Interestingly, neither he nor Ratchford have kicked any 40/20s this season.
5. Kevin Brown
The Widnes man has enjoyed a fine season with the Chemics, and has forced himself into the international reckoning again. An experienced player who has often been perceived as being unlucky to be left out of international squads in the past, Brown has shown leadership and quality for the Vikings this season.
If kicking points is used as a yardstick, however, he comes up short against some of the other candidates on this list, as he has kicked no goals (not surprising in a team with Danny Tickle) or drop goals. He has made 344 carries for 1526 metres so far this season. His 13 offloads show he can be dangerous creating space for others.
6. Sam Tomkins
The New Zealand Warriors star might be something of a left-field choice for this list, but he has played at scrum-half before in England colours, scoring three tries in the number 7 jersey against France at Leigh in 2010. He also made his debut in the number 6 jersey against Wales in 2009, scoring a hat-trick at Brewery Field. With Zak Hardaker showing fine form on the field, Steve McNamara might well consider playing the Leeds man at full-back with Tomkins in the halves.
Such a move might be considered a little risky, but it would ensure that two of the finest current English players would be in the team. Tomkins has generally been seen as steady without being outstanding in his first NRL season, notching 13 tries in 23 games for the Warriors so far.