Martin Gleeson column: ‘Australia aren’t as formidable as they have been’

Sean O'Loughlin in action against Australia. Picture: NRL Photos
Sean O'Loughlin in action against Australia. Picture: NRL Photos
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In the fifth of his exclusive World Cup columns, former Wigan and GB centre Martin Gleeson explains why he’s more encouraged about England’s chances...

England lost their opening World Cup match 18-4, but when it finished I was encouraged – for two reasons.

Firstly, they improved as the game unfolded. The final scoreline seemed harsh.

Sure, England forced it too much in the first-half and made too many errors. But thankfully, the Aussies didn’t capitalise on it – they uncharacteristically forced too many passes – and in the second-half England improved.

Last week, I mentioned the importance of maintaining composure and concentration, and getting stronger as the game went on, and they did that.

Jermaine McGillvary was again impressive, and James Roby was outstanding when he came on. There were hardly any stoppages, and the quick rucks suited Robes down to the ground.

I liked seeing him work in tandem with hooker Josh Hodgson.

Unfortunately, they weren’t able to add to McGillvary’s opening try. When England did get close to their line, the Aussies rushed up quickly and shut down the threats.

England probably should have picked up on it in-game and adapted, but they will learn from that for next time, and make sure they set their depths, timings and plays accordingly. But across the board, they looked well-balanced, there were no alarm bells, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in this tournament.

I mentioned a second reason to give me confidence in England; the Aussies are definitely beatable.

They’re definitely not the strongest Australian team I’ve seen over the last few years.

They’ve got quality and cohesion down the spine of the side and there are some other good players – David Klemmer was strong down the middle – but they don’t seem the formidable force they have been.

They aren’t the awesome team of 2013, or the sides I’ve played in the past.

Of course, we should expect both sides to improve over the next few weeks.

England face Lebanon on Saturday, and they need to go into the Test with the mindset, and same game-plan, as if they were taking on one of the better sides.

When former Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens worked with me at Salford, I asked him about the way the Aussies played in the 2013 World Cup.

And he said when they played Ireland, for example, they probably could have played a bit more and forced a few more passes.

But they were disciplined, and played as if they were facing England or New Zealand. If they saw a play that was only half on, they didn’t go for it – even though they could probably have afforded to play a bit touch-football style.

So England need to carry on with the style which they think can beat the bigger sides; controlled, composed and relentless.

Coach Wayne Bennett has already named his side and will bring in Alex Walmsley, after illness denied him a Test debut last weekend. And with Sam Burgess injured, Ben Currie will get the left-side second-row spot.

Some would have wanted Bennett to make changes and try out other players – maybe at halfback.

But if he knows the combination he wants in the big games to follow, then I think he needs to let them build.

The Aussies can afford to rest their key players for a game or two – as they are doing against France this weekend – because when they return, they have those partnerships already in-sync.

But England don’t have that luxury.

They tried different halfback combinations in all of the Tests last year, and they can’t keep chopping and changing.

I know if I was playing right centre, and I knew who my halfback would be in the main games, I’d want to be playing alongside him as much as possible to get the timings right. So I understand why he has kept consistency. The only area I would have liked to have seen a change – and I mentioned last week the dangers of playing a forward at centre – would have been moving John Bateman to a role in the middle.

I understand why Bennett opted for Bateman ahead of Mark Percival; the Saints centre does have errors in him, and they cost you at Test level.

I’m sure he saw Bateman as a safer option.

But there was a time in Friday’s game when someone threw a shoot-ball to Bateman, he had some space, and he passed it on to Ryan Hall.

If you paused the play when Bateman got the ball, ask yourself: who do you want attacking in that position?

On a rare occasion you’ve got the Aussies stripped for numbers, I’d want someone with speed, footwork and a flick pass – which Percival has.

If I was an Australian sliding defender, I know who I’d rather be facing.

This is not a criticism of Bateman.

I’m a huge fan of his, and I really think he could do a fantastic job for England in his preferred position in the middle.

He’d offer England something difference off the bench – or if Sean O’Loughlin was rested – with his tenacity, pace, angles and awkwardness.