Hope for England despite final defeat
Are England destined to be a permanent second or third best on the big stage to Australia and New Zealand? Or was the 30-8 Four Nations final defeat against the Kangaroos another vital step forward in coach Steve McNamara's long-term plan, focused on winning the 2013 World Cup?
Despite an impressive victory over New Zealand en route to the final, the host nation were ultimately undone by superior opposition on Saturday, leaving England fans and players alike wondering whether it was just the same old story.
Before the match, however, confidence in the camp had been high.
Popping into the home dressing room three hours before kick-off, you could feel the adrenalin and belief as the kit men and physios hung up jerseys 1-17. "Amarillo" blared out of the speakers and expectation was in the air.
I had a quick chat with England coach Steve McNamara in the tunnel as the players returned from their final warm-up, asking him whether he was confident. "Very. This is going to be an exciting evening," was his reply.
And so it was. Yet it ended in the way it always tends to, Australia simply too good for England when it matters most.
Former Great Britain and England centre Keith Senior summed it up perfectly on BBC Radio 5 live just 10 minutes into the game: "England seem to have forgotten all the good things they did to beat New Zealand, everything they have worked so hard on, and have suddenly realised they are playing the mighty Australia."
England were good enough to beat the Kangaroos at Elland Road but the grandest theatre often triggers stage fright. Superstar full-back Sam Tomkins had a couple of awful moments as Tim Sheens' side targeted the Wigan man under the high ball, the half-back pairing of Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield did not click and the kicking game - so impressive against the Kiwis - was frustratingly unreliable.
England's first few sets in the opening period saw four different kickers - Chase, Sinfield, Gareth Ellis and Jon Wilkin, all kicking on the last tackle.
Senior was feeling every tackle: "There is far too much time, far too much respect here," he said. "Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston are playing in their dinner jackets out there and no-one is touching them."
For that, we must give Australia credit. This is a fabulous Aussie side and Lockyer's farewell game was destined to finish with him scoring the final try in a tournament victory.
As a rugby league fan, it was an honour to witness Lockyer's farewell. BBC commentator Dave Woods described the great man as "rugby league royalty" and it is not often an Aussie player receives a standing ovation on his exit from the post-match press conference in England.
Sheens said in that press conference that Australia's class in the outside backs was the difference against "a very good" England side. But in truth, the Green and Golds dominated all over the park.
Ryan Hall's penalty try - awarded after Thurston's high shot denied the Leeds man a touchdown in the corner - was the only real highlight for the hosts. Australia were denied three further scores by the video referee and could have been well clear.
While England were error-prone, Thurston produced his man-of-the-match display while carrying an injury. He only passed a fitness test on Saturday afternoon, while two other Aussies played despite illness.
But as much as this looked like just another epic England defeat in a major final, under McNamara, England have made, and continue to make, massive strides. There is every reason for optimism, every reason to see this upward curve continuing.
I spent Saturday night with the players and, while some were sombre, some distraught, McNamara was very matter of fact and full of hope.
"We went into the tournament as third favourites and made the final," he said. "We beat the world champions and scared the eventual winners, but came up short in the final."
The profile of the international game has risen, too, through this Four Nations tournament. There has been genuine interest in rugby league, and the fact that BBC Radio 5 live moved the traditional Saturday night 606 football phone-in to allow us to broadcast live from Elland Road was a major shot in the arm.
So what next for England? Well, that remains unclear, with next year's international fixture list still uncertain, and likely to be brief at best.
This has been a very long season, but in the absence of a Four Nations tournament next year there have to be competitive fixtures put in place for this team to improve.
Tomkins had an off-day at the weekend but will be a star at full-back for many years. Gareth Widdop, underused by McNamara in this tournament, will grow in stature and surely become an automatic choice for the number six shirt.
The forward pack has always been strong but Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley will not be around forever. James Graham is likely to benefit massively from joining Ellis, Widdop, Chris Heighington and Jack Reed by playing his rugby league in Australia's NRL next year.
Many feel - though McNamara dodged questions on the issue - that streamlining Super League from the existing 14 teams would make the sport in Britain more competitive and yield a stronger national side. There would be more free time to play internationals too. But that is an issue for the Rugby Football League, and is not likely to change any time soon.
England fans will have faith following this showing, for this is a good England side that can get even better. But the team needs more games in the next two years for there to be any rewards at the 2013 World Cup.