With no Wigan or Warrington players, eight debuts and a late call up for Richie Myler at half-back to replace the injured Luke Gale, there was little about tonight’s England game against France at the Leigh Sports Village could barely be classed as a full-blooded warm-up for the impending three match series against New Zealand.
Debutants Shaul, Johnstone, Lyne and Holmes made the starting line up while all four substitues for England would also gain their first cap for a side with just one loss in their last six matches as they came up against a France side who themselves have only managed one win in their last six outings.
Places were up for grabs for the New Zealand series as Wayne Bennett took a last look at his side in what should be a realtively straighforward run out in Leigh.
There were just ninety second on the clock when Josh Hodgson fed Tom Burgess to stretch out his arm and ground under the sticks. Jake Connor added a simple conversion from under the crossbar for a 6-0 lead.
On ten minutes Tom Johnstone won a race to ground a Jamie Shaul grubber kick to the corner, exposing the French full-back Robin as he went behind the defensive line to ground. Connor was unable to add the conversion from the touchline, England 10-0 ahead.
On fourteen Johnstone got his second after an attempted Tony Gigot tackle saw the ball go to ground ten out and then be flicked into Johnstones hands by Jake Connor. Connor slid the conversion between the uptights for 16-0, England in full control with the game being played entirely in the French half.
Johnstone completed an eleven minute hat-trick plucking a high kick out of the air to go the remaining ten metres to score. Jake Connor was again accurate with his conversion and England were scoring at a point a minute.
On twenty-four Richie Myler crowned his return to the squad after a six year absence when he took a James Graham pass to go five metres and dive over. Connor was unable to add the conversion from wide but it was all one way traffic.
Two minutes later Luke Thompson took the last pass from Adam Milner to score after the England attack ripped open the France defence. Connor kicked the two for 32-0 with just twenty-seven minutes on the clock.
England scored again as the half time hooter sounded when Richie Myler fed Elliott Whitehead to run behind the sticks and make Connnor’s conversion a formality for a massive 38-0 interval lead.
France managed to keep England at bay for the opening twenty minutes of the second half but England finally found their way over when Jake Connor chased a kick to pluck it out of the air, stumble over the line, and ground under the cross-bar. He added the extra two points for 44-0.
France finally got on the board when Theo Fages crashed through a tiring defence, throwing a dummy to Liam Sutcliffe, and diving over. William Barthau added the conversion but it was simply consolation, there was no way back from this scoreline in a heavily one-sided game, despite a uch improved second half performance.
Jamie Shaul had a try ruled out on seventy-seven for an obstruction as the second half finished with a far more respectable 6-6 scoreline, but a crushing victory for England thanks to their thirty-eight first half points.
This wasn’t much of a test match, even for an England side comprising a number of fringe squad players. Wayne Bennett may a have a dilemma over the inclusion of hat-trick hero Tom Johnstone but few other debutants will have played their way into his fist seventeen thoughts. France were poor opposition on the night and showed signs of long seasons for the Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique.
New Zealand will be a different challenge altogether.
England: Shaul, Johnstone (3T), Lyne, Percival, McGillvary, Myler (T), Connor (T, 5G), Graham, Hodgson, Burgess T (T), Holmes, Whitefield, Burgess G.. Subs: Milner, Thompson (T), Mulhern, Sutcliffe.
France: Robin, Marcon, Gigot, Ader, Miloudi, Fages (T), Barthau, Belmas, Da Costa, Canet, Jullien, Goudemond, Baitieri. Subs: Marion, Margalet, Yesa, Escamilla.
Referee: Chris Kendall.