For many pundits, the devastating knee injury that has ruled Canberra hooker Josh Hodgson out of the Rugby League World Cup final is just another reason to rule a thick line through England’s already-slim hopes of upsetting Australia.
St Helens veteran James Roby will be expected to play the entire decider at dummy-half after performing the role of Hodgson’s bench understudy for most of the tournament.
If taking on that responsibility in his nation’s biggest match in more than two decades wasn’t enough, he will line up opposite the player unanimously regarded as the best-ever in the position, Australian captain Cameron Smith, who was awarded his second Golden Boot this week and is looking to cap arguably his greatest season (and one of the best years by any player in the game’s history) with his second World Cup triumph as skipper.
James Roby not fazed by prospect of playing full 80 in the World Cup Final https://t.co/ttwll6t2VQ
— Mike Critchley (@mike_critchley) November 27, 2017
But two former Australian No.9 greats have backed Roby to be the potential X-factor in England’s bid to clinch their first World Cup crown since 1972.
Newcastle Knights, NSW Blues and Kangaroos legend Danny Buderus is more qualified than most to appraise the qualities Roby will bring to England’s cause, facing off against him seven times during a late-career stint with Leeds Rhinos – including the 2011 Super League grand final, which Buderus’ Rhinos won 32-16.
“James Roby has been such a great hooker through the modern era, and they lose absolutely nothing with him in there,” Buderus told Commentary Box Sports.
“He’s a different sort of player – he takes advantage of quick rucks and gets out (of dummy-half) and goes and goes, he’s so fit.”
Plenty of English experts have said – while acknowledging Raiders linchpin Hodgson’s class – that England stand a better chance of an unlikely victory with the 32-year-old Roby in the saddle.
Roby plays a more direct, up-tempo game from acting half, which may suit England’s simpler game-plan as they look to win the battle of the middle third and tie the Kangaroos down. Hodgson’s scheming, ball-playing style has seemed slightly out of kilter with what England are trying to do in the tournament so far.
Comes as no surprise to me that Luke Gale – and England in general – look like a much better team with James Roby on the pitch. Has to play in the knockouts. #RLWC2017
— Matthew Shaw (@M_Shaw1) November 12, 2017
And Roby certainly doesn’t lack the experience or accolades to go toe-to-toe with Smith’s monolithic reputation.
He has played almost 400 games for St Helens, won the 2007 Man of Steel award, has been named at hooker in the Super League Dream Team five times, and boasts 34 appearances for Great Britain and England since 2006.
With former Saints teammate James Graham, Roby is also one of just two players to have played in all three of England’s semi-final appearances at the 2008, 2013 and 2017 RLWC tournaments; few Poms deserve this crack at greatness more than the Merseyside-born rake.
“He’s a Test player – he’s one of those players you’d be really happy to be lining up alongside,” Buderus says.
“It’ll be a really good challenge between the No.9s on Saturday.”
The Roby-for-Hodgson change also allowed for England coach Wayne Bennett to employ a four-forward bench – as Australia have down throughout the tournament – by giving dual NRL premiership-winning back-rower Chris Heighington the interchange spot vacated by Roby.
Captain and lock Sean O’Loughlin’s withdrawal due to a quad injury has scuppered that plan, however, with Ben Currie moving into the starting line-up and fullback/half Jonny Lomax joining the bench.
Champion Brisbane Broncos hooker Kerrod Walters, who played six Origins for Queensland and eight Tests for Australia from 1989-94 and locked horns with the likes of Ben Elias, Royce Simmons and older brother Steve during a decorated career, is another Roby admirer.
“(Hodgson) is a quality player, but James Roby has been around for a long time – there’s not much between them,” Walters says.
“They’re different types – Roby is probably better from dummy-half, he tends to attack more from there, while Josh Hodgson is very clever, he kicks well and he’s a bit more similar to Cameron.”
But Walters, a non-playing squad member as Steve hooked the scrums in Australia’s gripping win over Great Britain in the 1992 final at Wembley, believes the Kangaroos’ dominant pack will ensure Smith gets the better of the No.9 duel by default.
“The battle will be won up front, and Cameron Smith’s forwards will make his job so much easier.
“(Australia have) got a great mix of youth and experience, and they’ll be hard to contain in the forwards.”
What an honour taking home the 2017 Golden Boot award today! Thank you to my family for their love and support in what has been a huge season. Thanks also to my teammates, coaches and all of the administrative staff @Storm @QLDMaroons and @Kangaroos. pic.twitter.com/QuMaNB4grh
— Cameron Smith (@camsmith9) November 29, 2017