Martin Gleeson column: ‘England need the stars to align’

Mark Percival "100 per cent" should keep his place
Mark Percival "100 per cent" should keep his place

In the third of his exclusive Four Nations columns, the ex-Wigan and Great Britain centre assesses England’s chances of beating Australia.

England don’t just have to beat Australia, they may need to win by a margin of 12 points or more.

They will know by Friday night, after the Kiwis have played Scotland, the size of the challenge in front of them, but one thing is for sure – England have a huge test in front of them trying to get the win.

I’d love to see them win and I wish them all the best, but from what I’ve seen in the tournament so far, and from looking at the squads, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an Australia win.

That’s not to say England can’t win the game.

But it would need the stars to align and, even then, they may need the Aussies to have an off-day.

Having James Graham back is a huge boost - he hates the Aussies!

If we are to beat them, we need to match them when it comes to doing the basics – long kicks, completed sets – and cut the number of mistakes they made against Scotland, with pressure passes and losing the ball in contact.

While we should try and match the Aussies’ ability to complete the basics, we shouldn’t try and emulate their style.

We struggled to break New Zealand down with shape, and if we do rely solely on standard attacks (two line runners, out the back to Widdop, line runner, out the back to Lomax, pass to winger) the Aussies will defend that all day. We need variety, offloads and second-phase, and we’ve shown that in spells against New Zealand and Scotland and it’s worked for them.

For that reason, I think George Williams needs to keep his place in the team. He really caused the Bravehearts trouble and – while taking into account the standard of the opposition – I think he warrants his place in the side, possibly next to Gareth Widdop.

I know that would be England’s third halfback partnership of the series, but in fairness to Wayne Bennett, he’s come in from the other side of the world and doesn’t know these players. He could only have got so much from TV games. You can watch as much video as you want, but you don’t know what those players’ instructions were for those matches. It’s only now he is finding out about his squad.

If you look at the spine of the Kiwis and the Kangaroos, they keep with the same combinations, and that’s why they look so smooth.

Players like Smith, Cronk and Thurston don’t force passes, they are much more patient and controlled. England were far more erratic against Scotland, but Wayne is finding out what his best spine is going into the end of this tournament and next year’s World Cup. He is figuring out who perform for him, and who doesn’t.

People are giving the coach grief for being abrupt in the interviews, but at least he came out and called it for what it was – a terrible start.

He’s telling it like it is, which is what I’d rather hear than a coach trying to gloss over a poor performance.

We can expect a different start from England, simply because of the quality of the opposition.

I used to love these games against the Aussies – these games are the pinnacle. And having James Graham back from injury will be a huge boost, because he hates the Aussies! He will do anything to play in this, and he will give everything he’s got.

Having him back is huge, and not just because of what he does as an individual, but because – with this only the third Test against them in the last five years – he’s one of only a few players who have performed well against the Aussies before. That experience is hard to measure, but it is so important.

Team-wise, I’d keep with Mark Percival at left centre, 100 per cent – he’s a class act.

Personally, I would consider John Bateman at right centre, because that side is Australia’s most potent with Greg Inglis there – whoever gets the nod, our right edge has to be a lot better in defence.

I’ve got a sneaky feeling the Aussies will rest some players for the final.

I know there is a remote chance they could miss out on the final, but I think they’ll be that confident in their squad, they will rest up some key players.

They weren’t great against the Kiwis on Saturday, they barely got out of second gear, and they were still too good.

It wasn’t a great Test, it lacked intensity – it was as if they both knew they’d meet again in the final, though England will have other ideas.

Before that, Scotland face New Zealand on Friday night and the start they made against England was really encouraging – the Kiwis won’t go into this half-hearted.

As long as they keep within two scores, Scotland will keep fighting; as soon as they go three-scores down, they will die off and the floodgates will open.

So it’s a case of how long can Scotland keep to within two scores. If it’s 10 minutes, the Kiwis could rattle up 60 points – which would be a worst-case scenario for England.

Whatever the points-difference is, England won’t lack motivation on Sunday. And if they needed another incentive to impress, they have one. Because win, lose or draw, whether they make the final or not, this is their last chance to prove to the coach they deserve to be in World Cup squad.

Their ability to handle pressure, and perform against Australia, will stick in his mind regardless of their form in Super League next year.

They have a glorious chance to put a marker down this Sunday.