Mark Percival describes his week in the England camp as “just mad” as he prepares to make his Test debut alongside his heroes.
The 22-year-old St Helens centre will win his first cap in Wayne Bennett’s first match as England coach against France in Avignon on Saturday evening, a serious warm-up for the Ladbrokes Four Nations Series.
It will be the realisation of a childhood dream for Percival, who admits he has been having to pinch himself after getting the chance to rub shoulders with some of the cream of the NRL.
“This week has been mad for me because you watch Sam Burgess and James Graham and all them, these massive superstars in probably the best league in the world and now you’re training with them and getting to talk to them, it’s just mad,” he said.
“It’s always been an ambition to be a part of it and I get the chance to do it now.”
Percival knew he was in the frame for a Four Nations spot when he was among the group of 31 invited to meet Bennett during his whistle-stop trip to England in June but his chances looked to have been cruelly dashed by a run of injuries that meant he missed more matches than he played for his club in 2016.
He was forced to sit out Saints’ World Club Series clash with Sydney Roosters in February after rupturing medial knee ligaments in the second match of the season and hamstring trouble then kept him sidelined until the last two matches of the campaign.
“I’ve had a few injuries this year and I didn’t really have much chance to impress anyone,” Percival said. “There’s really good players in my position that have played consistently all year.
“I knew I was coming back at the end of the year but it’s not much of a chance to show what you’ve got in two games but obviously he’s seen something in me.
“When I made that meeting in June it proper spurred me on. Wayney being the coach he is, he’s very inspirational. I was obviously doing it for my club but at the back of your mind you know that there is England coming up at the back end of the year.”
Percival will be joined in the England line-up by his St Helens team-mate Jonny Lomax, 26, who has endured even more injury heartache after coming back from two knee reconstructions, much to the admiration of his close friend.
“I think what he’s come back from, it’s pretty remarkable,” said Percival. “I’m made up for Jonny more than me. I’m really pleased to have him here with me.”
Bennett is holding back players from Grand Finalists Wigan and Warrington and new captain Sam Burgess is missing through suspension but England are still expected to win comfortably at Parc des Sports.
However, Percival warns that the French on home soil will be a far different proposition from the makeshift team that suffered an 84-4 humiliation at Leigh 12 months ago.
“It’s going to be no easy task on Saturday, down in France,” he said. “They’re going to give us a very tough game. Everyone sees when you go to play Catalans, it’s always a tough game down there.
“Hopefully it will put us in good stead for the Four Nations coming up.”
France (from, Catalans Dragons players unless stated): O Arnaud (Avignon), W Barthau (London Broncos), G Bonnet (Lezignan), J Bousquet, R Casty, A Da Costa, V Duport, B Garcia, T Gigot, M Goudemand (Avignon), B Jullien (Warrington), K Larroyer (Hull KR), R Navarrete, M Pala, E Pelissier, U Perez, S Robin, M Simon (Wakefield), G Springer (Castleford).
England (probable): J Lomax (St Helens); J McGillvary (Huddersfield), M Percival (St Helens), K Watkins (Leeds), R Hall (Leeds); G Widdop (St George Illawarra), L Gale (Castleford); J Graham (Canterbury Bulldogs, capt), J Hodgson (Canberra), S Taylor (Hull), E Whitehead (Canberra), S Ward (Leeds), M Cooper (St George Illawarra).
Subs (from): K Brown (Widnes), G Burgess (South Sydney), T Burgess (South Sydney), D Clark (Warrington), L Farrell (Wigan), S Ratchford (Warrington).