With eight players making their Test debuts and arguably more than one eye on next year’s World Cup, there is a distinctly fresh feel to the England team that will take to the field in Perpignan on Saturday against France. Trying to make sense of where this Test fits into the bigger picture is difficult, not least because England were supposed to be in the middle of their group stage campaign at the World Cup this weekend before the tournament was pushed back 12 meses.
But one thing is clear: winning the World Cup remains Shaun Wane’s absolute goal, and that is arguably reflected in the head coach’s team selection this weekend. A number of young players with the chance of making his squad next autumn have been given their first Test call-ups, and two of those in particular have remarkable stories to tell, the Leeds duo of Kruise Leeming and Mikolaj Oledzki.
Rugby league is rightly proud of its multicultural heritage, and that is visible in Leeming and Oledzki’s journeys to this point. Hooker Leeming was born in Swaziland, now Eswatini, before his family relocated to West Yorkshire when he was a child, while Oledzki was raised in the Polish city of Gdansk until his family moved to Leeds. Both will become full England internationals on Saturday against a tough French side, buoyed by the recent success of Catalans Dragons and Toulouse, who will both play in Super League in 2022.
I’ve really had to adapt a lot from arriving here as a young kid,” says Oledzki, who had to learn to speak English at the age of nine after arriving from Poland. “I was fortunate to meet some great people, but it’s been tough. I’m proud to be from Poland and proud of my family’s history but as soon as I felt I could make a career out of playing rugby, this was the goal. Playing for England is the biggest thing you can do.”
“It means a lot more to me as an individual than some people I think,” adds Leeming. “The different backgrounds I’ve got and the journey I’ve had, to now have this chance to represent England at this level is enormous. It’s been a good year for me and if you’d told me I’d be playing for England at the start of the year I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m very proud to be from Swaziland but to see my family watch me play for England is going to be very special. It means the world to me.”
Leeming and Oledzki are among those who get the chance to impress on Saturday after strong individual seasons in Super League. Established regulars including Sam Tomkins and Gareth Widdop are unavailable, while longstanding hooker James Roby retired from international rugby last month after the World Cup’s postponement. That reinforces the feeling in the coach’s mind that while beating the French is important, the bigger picture is next year.
“I want four or five players in every position for the World Cup,” Wane says. “I want it to be as difficult as possible to select the squad for the tournament. There are some guys in here this weekend who have the chance to force their way into my thinking. I want to see how the new lads manage in camp with me.”
In Tomkins’s absence, Castleford’s Niall Evalds will make his international debut at full-back, while John Bateman will captain the side. There are also Test debuts for the likes of the Catalans winger, Tom Davies, and Castleford’s hooker, Paul McShane. They, like Leeming and Oledzki, have impressed in 2021 but will be acutely aware that there are players ahead of them in the pecking order. That only heightens the importance of Saturday’s game.
“France will be strong,” Wane says. “There’s a good opportunity here for us because we’re going to face a lot of adversity over there, playing them at home with a French referee. Winning the game is important, of course it is, but the end goal is the World Cup. That’s what we’re planning for.” Come Saturday, you suspect Wane will have a much clearer idea about how this new-look England side can cope at the highest level.