England suffered opening night disappointment in the World Cup after going down 18-4 to joint-hosts Australia, but there are plenty of positives to take for Wayne Bennett’s side.
England took the lead through Jermaine McGilvary after just 5 minutes, but two quick tries from Matt Gillett and Billy Slater midway through the first half and another from Josh Dugan in the final minute of the game, as well as three conversions from Cameron Smith, saw the World Champions get the defence of their title off to a winning start.
The loss, England’s twelfth in a row against the Kangaroos, will be hard to take for the ‘Wall of White’ after they produced a battling performance to remain in the game until a late Cameron Smith penalty put it out of reach, however, there were signs that England could go on to have a strong tournament.
The first half, in which England scored their only try but offered little else in regards to an attacking threat after McGilvary’s early score, got off to a good start but slipped away from England as Australia grew into the game. Some good goal-line defence was shown as the home side applied pressure, but Mal Meninga’s side did manage to cross twice and build up a 6-point lead before half-time.
Despite the loss of Sam Burgess, who will miss 3 to 4 weeks due to a medial ligament injury, England kicked on in the second half and threatened to get back level as the likes of McGilvary, Ryan Hall, Gareth Widdop and James Roby all looked dangerous as they attempted to create chances.
Although no points were scored by England in the second half, it did look as though with a little more time together to develop understandings, then there is a potential for the England attack to be a threat and cause problems for the teams they will come up against in the coming weeks. The remaining group games against Lebanon and France will be a good opportunity for the team to find their rhythm and get their attack firing ahead of the latter stages of the tournament, which England are still expected to qualify for even after this early setback.
The final score wasn’t a fair reflection of how close the game was. With 5 minutes remaining only 6 points separated the two sides and it was only because England had to go for it in the final few minutes if they were to get anything out of the game that the game opened up a little. The penalty goal from Smith effectively killed the contest, but England continued to look for points and a cross-field kick from Widdop almost found Kallum Watkins, but instead bounced kindly for Josh Dugan who ran 80 metres to add gloss to the result for Australia.
The defensive effort was good overall and particularly so in the second half. Australia’s first half tries, both of which could have been prevented, were frustrating as the ‘Green and Gold’ were able to take the lead too easily, but in the second half their try-scoring chances were limited as England missed just 10 tackles. That earnt England a chance of taking away at least a point, but unfortunately from an English point of view the Australian’s also defended resolutely and held out.
Of course, there are some things for Wayne Bennett to work on ahead of the meeting with Lebanon on Sunday 4th November. For example, the kicking game was probably the main weakness and failed to trouble Australia. Rarely did kicks from Gale or Widdop find open-space which allowed their opposition to get back on the front foot quickly and keep a high intensity match flowing. England clearly struggled with the pace of the game at times and could have done with a few more breaks in play, so being smarter with their kicks is something to work on.
Options for the last tackle play, trying to make the most of centres Kallum Watkins and John Bateman and finding the best way to deal with Sam Burgess’ absence are just a few other things that will have to be looked at in training over the next 9 days.
While it may feel like the same old story for England after another loss in a tournament to one of teams they are supposed to be challenging for the trophy, judging from that performance there has been a good amount of improvement since last year’s Four Nations tournament and it would be harsh to rule them out already. The loss was far from an ideal start, but England can now build on what was an encouraging display to bounce back and find some winning form.