AS INTERNATIONAL debuts go, the England bow of Wakefield Trinity’s Tom Johnstone could not really have gone any better.
The prolific winger scored a first-half hat-trick against France in the space of just 13 minutes at Leigh Sports Village last night.
It was one of a few highlights for England coach Wayne Bennett, as he got a first look at his squad before the opening Test against New Zealand in Hull on Saturday week.
Castleford Tigers second-row Oli Holmes - one of four England Knights players drafted into this contest at Leigh Sports Village - was equally as impressive given a series of strong carries on his own debut.
That bodes well for the 26-year-old’s future chances although he will board a plane to Australia with the Knights today in readiness for their two games in Papua New Guinea.
There will be plenty of changes by Bennett for that opening Test against the Kiwis given he has nine Grand Finalists from Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves to welcome back into his ranks.
There was eight debutants on show last night and, especially as England eased into a 38-0 interval lead after an almost error-free first half, plenty had done their own chances no harm whatsoever.
Wakefield’s Reece Lyne, for example, was a strong presence at centre, making one terrific first half break while St Helens prop Luke Thompson came on and impressed.
Bennett will not be pleased with how his side’s execution tailed off in the second period, Hull FC’s Jake Connor adding their only try before Theo Fages got France a consolation just after the hour mark in front of a crowd of only 5,144.
Hull full-back Jamie Shaul did not look out of place on his debut before while Hull KR’s Robbie Mulhern and Leeds Rhinos’ Liam Sutcliffe both also got a taste of England action off the bench before flying out to Brisbane with the Knights.
Understandably, Johnstone, Trinity's first England representative since 2009, claimed man-of-the-match with his treble.
It was that rarity, too, of three successive tries, as the 23-year-old instantly made his mark on the international scene in the opening autumn international at Leigh Sports Village.
For a player who spent most of last year sidelined following a knee reconstruction, it was due reward for all the endeavour he has put in since, his displays for Trinity earning him Dream Team selection.
All eyes now will be on Bennett’s selection; will Johnstone get the nod for the Kiwis?
With Ryan Hall out, that left wing slot is up for grabs but plenty may still think St Helens’ Tommy Makinson will come in. Regardless, Johnstone could not have done any more.
There was plenty of performances to like, even if the opposition was not ideally what Bennett would have preferred.
France offered little in the way of resistance, not legally at least.
They put in some fierce hits, at times, but consistently were not strong enough to cope with the power of, in particular, the Burgess twins.
France captain Jason Baitieri rattled Richie Myler with one thunderous shot, landing on the scrum-half just after he had grubbered through, although the Leeds Rhinos player, to his credit, did manage to quickly regather his senses.
Baitieri was penalised and was again later on when he tried the old skill of striking against the head at a scrum.
The problem he was stood at prop and the ball had not even gone when he twice tried kicking out at it.
Even Connor, known for his own occasional irritating tactics, looked bemused as he tried to get the ball in.
England were over within 90 seconds as Tom Burgess charged over from close range.
Johnstone then got his first as he latched onto a clever blindside grubber from Shaul in the 13th minute.
His second was more fortuitous as a pass from Connor was scruffily palmed down into his path for a free run.
Holmes showed his class with a piercing break in the restart set with Shaul just denied a debut try of his own.
Instead, not long after, Johnstone completed his treble after climbing brilliantly to claim Connor’s crossfield kick.
Myler, the Leeds Rhinos scrum-half recalled to Test match duty for the first time since 2012, then got over after more clever link play with the impressive Holmes down the left.
Next, Thompson got over after Connor found space on his inside for Adam Milner, the Castleford loose forward.
Milner, another making his first Test appearance, came on at No13 but showed his own versatility by switching to hooker in the second period when Josh Hodgson came off.
Myler created England’s seventh first half try with a neat slip ball for Elliott Whitehead but then, in that second period, his side lost much of its cutting edge as the French rallied.
England: Shaul; McGillvary, Lyne, Percival, Johnstone; Connor, Myler; Graham, Hodgson, T Burgess, Holmes, Whitehead, G Burgess. Substitutes: Milner, Thompson, Mulhern, Sutcliffe.
France: Robin; Marcon, Gigot, Ader, Miloudi; Fages, Barthau; Belmas, Da Costa, Canet, Jullien, Goudemand, Baitieri. Substitutes: Marion, Margalet, Yesa, Escamilla.
Referee: Chris Kendall (RFL)