England blew a golden chance to beat Australia at the weekend.
I really did think they had the players who could do it, if they nailed a performance. And, with the Kangaroos guaranteed a spot in the final – following New Zealand’s surprise draw with Scotland on Friday night – it wasn’t a must-win game for them, and we could have taken advantage.
At the start of the game, I thought Australia looked a little safe. But after Jermaine McGillvary scored a good try, from the right play, it lifted the tourists and they went from first into second gear. By the end of the match, I don’t think they made fourth gear, and they didn’t need to.
It was a frustrating performance from England. We were competing in terms of getting into good positions, but we didn’t finish our sets well. At times we looked cumbersome in the middle, they looked sharper, and at this level tiny margins can have huge consequences.
Twice we failed to hit the touchline for penalties – Josh Hodgson and Gareth Widdop may never do that again in their careers. And on any other day of the week, Sam Burgess takes that pass to go over for a try early in the second-half.
Imagine if those flashpoints had gone our way, it could have been a different outcome – or at least put England in a controlling position heading into the final 30 minutes.
‘I like the idea of playing in London, but we should make the most of our home advantage’
Wayne Bennett nailed it when he said players can get away with dumb plays at club level, particularly in Super League, but you can’t get away with it against the very best. And Australia, right now, are the very best.
Their attention to detail was frightening.
They were like a well-oiled machine. They looked synchronised at times, with Cooper Cronk nailing every kick, which kept the pressure on England. Look at where their backfield started their sets, compared to the Aussies. And Cameron Smith was unbelievable at hooker. Afterwards, Smith said they needed to work on their completion – yet it was at 86 per cent. England’s was 73. And another telling statistic was missed tackles, 42 to 13. None of their players missed more than two tackles – we had players missing seven.
England didn’t get any help from the crowd – while I like the idea of playing the odd game in London, I think while it’s been so long since we won, we need to utilise our home advantage. Use Headingley, Hull or the DW, where you get the crowd behind the lads and make it uncomfortable for the Aussies.
I suggested in a previous column that Bennett is using this competition as an experiment for him, to try and find his best side for the World Cup. The inclusion of Kevin Brown – to form a third different starting halfback combination in as many weeks – only strengthened my view. Kev’ had no distance on his kicks at first, though he improved as the game went on and had a few nice touches, until he was replaced by George Williams – to form our fourth halfback partnership in this tournament. In hindsight, had he stuck with Williams-Widdop from the first game against France, the Australia match would have been there fourth game together, and they would have been a lot smoother.
But Bennett didn’t know the players, and he will have taken a lot from this series, and learned a lot about the players.
Going forward, I think the coach has to settle on a spine – hooker, halves and full-back – and stick with it. He’s tried different combinations now, so he knows what players can and can’t do. I think he has to go Josh Hodgson, George Williams and another half, plus Jonny Lomax, or Sam Tomkins if he rekindles his form next year.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if he reconsidered his selection and picked a couple of Australians who qualify – which I wouldn’t be a fan of. He didn’t do it this year, but there are a couple of Aussies who are eligible through the ancestry rule, and I would not be shocked at all if he looked at bringing in maybe a centre or even another halfback. One positive against Australia was the performance of John Bateman. He was immense, even though I would still like to have seen him in the middle.
Thankfully, he may not have to wait too long to play for England again, with a Test against Samoa planned for May.
That’s a step in the right direction – and hopefully they get another game in before the World Cup. The more internationals England play, at the top level, the better we will get.
They need to be playing Australia more often than three times in five years.
And while I congratulate Scotland on their draw against the Kiwis – it was a terrific result – I think we should look at reverting to having either Tri-Nations competitions or tours, so we play more top-quality Tests.
It feels like it needs a freshen up, and that’s why I’d also revert to Great Britain again. I prefer the name, but there would also be a couple of the Scottish players – Lachlan Coote, for example – who would qualify. Yes, he’s an Australian, but he played for Scotland for pocket money which showed his commitment to Scotland, so I would have no problem picking him for GB.
Sunday’s final could be the last under the Four Nations format. New Zealand have a chance, they’ve done it in the past, but they will need to be near to their best to beat Australia. It’s hard to see anything other than an Aussie victory – which would send them back to the No.1-ranked nation in the world.