England coach Wayne Bennett says Sean O’Loughlin is “touch and go” for the rest of the Test series against New Zealand but believes his team could not be in better hands than those of stand-in skipper James Graham.
Liverpudlian Graham was the obvious choice to take over the captaincy for Sunday’s second Test at Anfield when O’Loughlin was ruled out with the long-standing calf injury he aggravated in the early stages of the 18-16 first Test win over the Kiwis in Hull.
Sydney-based Sam Burgess led England in O’Loughlin’s absence in the World Cup final in December but is missing from the series due to injury and Graham stepped in as captain for the international against France a fortnight ago.
“With Sam not here, James was a pretty straightforward choice,” Bennett said after the team’s open training session at Manchester’s Regional Arena. “There’s not many more passionate Englishmen.
“Lockers has been one of the top-line players in your country so he’s a loss but we’ve got to manage without him and we will.
“He’ll be touch and go for the series. It’s not a serious one but the calf injuries hang around with you at this stage of your career and your life.
“We lost him in the final last year in Australia and we did okay enough there.”
Bennett has brought Castleford loose forward Adam Milner into his 19-man squad and he will win his second cap from the bench, with St Helens prop Luke Thompson poised to make his first start after filling the void so impressively as a substitute last Saturday.
“He was really good,” Bennett said. “He brought lots of energy and he didn’t seem to get tired. He’s got good leg speed for the position he plays in.”
Milner, who made his Test debut as a substitute in the 44-6 win over the French, got the nod ahead of Wigan second rower Joe Greenwood, in the only change to the side that drew first blood in the three-match series.
“I like his enthusiasm,” Bennett said. “He tries extremely hard with everything he does.
“I’ve watched him play a fair bit at Castleford and he’s always full of energy and never short of drive to try and inspire his team-mates.”
Milner says he has already experienced the leadership skills of former St Helens forward Graham and has been impressed by the man management of Bennett.
“Jammer has given me lots of advice,” he said. “He’s collared me a few times and told me I deserve to be here and I should back myself.
“Coming from such an experienced member of the squad is phenomenal really. Getting an arm around you from him is something special.
“It’s not the way I wanted to come into the team, with Lockers being injured, but I’m going to grab it with both hands and I can’t wait for Sunday.
“Being around top quality boys is fantastic and I’m learning lots from Wayne Bennett.
“He’s got a wealth of experience and he’s actually been quite inspirational – he comes up and gives some quite touching speeches as well, which you don’t see too often. For a new lad coming in, it’s great to be a part of.”