England give us reasons to believe
As England trudged off to the sounds of their own fans booing them at half-time on Saturday, it seemed as though their worst nightmare was being realised on a truly haunting Halloween for Tony Smith's team.
Australia led 26-0 after 40 minutes in which an all-too familiar sinking feeling had quickly taken hold among the majority of the 23,122 inside Wigan's DW Stadium.
The 44-4 defeat Great Britain suffered in the final of the 2004 Tri-Nations, the 52-4 reverse the Kangaroos inflicted on England at last year's World Cup - few would have bet against another similarly distressing scoreline to expose the lie that Super League can produce players to compete with those of the NRL.
The Kangaroos had scored five unanswered tries in their Four Nations encounter and cut open the English defence with apparent ease in the opening half.
Greg Inglis was among the scorers as Australia dominated the first half in Wigan
Winger Tom Briscoe and centre Lee Smith had endured a horrendous time down England's right side as the Kangaroos imposing centre Greg Inglis scored one long-range try and created two more.
"In the first half Australia exploited some areas in our team," concluded Tony Smith afterwards with remarkable understatement.
The visiting forwards had more than matched England's much-vaunted pack while the speed of thought and execution of Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston allied to the Australians' ruthless ability to punish opposition errors had to be admired.
In contrast England, as Smith acknowledged afterwards, had stood off their esteemed opponents, been a touch cautious and not shown the attacking skills they possess.
Australia winger Jarryd Hayne had said during the week that after his team had drawn their opening game against New Zealand they could not afford to have their pants pulled down by England - but it was the home team that had been cruelly exposed.
Yet in scoring 16 unanswered points after the break, England reinvigorated their Four Nations campaign.
England still lost - a fact we must not lose sight of - but in the second 40 minutes they generated some much-needed momentum. They showed that they have the capability to hurt the best in the world; that they have players with the creative gifts and desire to pin down the opposition and then translate field position into points.
It is hard to argue with the assertion of Australia coach Tim Sheens that his team took their foot off the gas. The game was over as a contest at the break and it must be extremely difficult for a team to retain their instinctive competitive edge when they led by such a dominant margin.
Yet Australia are not accustomed to handing England freebies in any sport, and Lockyer was candid enough to admit afterwards that his team were out on their feet at the end. That was certainly not in the half-time planning.
"England came out and put a bit of pressure on us and we did not deal with it as well as we could do," added Sheens.
As though to underline the extent to which his team had been in a meaningful contest, Sheens revealed that a couple of players had taken knocks and could not remember much about the game.
Tony Smith must be credited for making a tactical switch at the break, withdrawing Briscoe and moving Lee Smith out to the wing, with Kyle Eastmond taking his place.
But it was the attitude and self-belief that really stood out.
Shaun Briscoe and Eorl Crabtree played their part as England made a rousing second-half comeback
I thought the forward pack was outstanding. Jamie Peacock, James Graham, Gareth Ellis and Adrian Morley are experienced top-level performers but NRL-bound Sam Burgess - a try scorer after the break - Eorl Crabtree and Ben Westwood impressed as well.
The level of physicality they showed will be required against the huge Kiwi side they play next Saturday. But there was more to it than that - particularly the manner in which they off-loaded helped to maintain the go-forward England generated after the break.
Burgess, perhaps keen to impress the watching Australians, looked a touch over-excited after his introduction but he settled into the game. Not only did he throw some superb off-loads but he made one brilliant catch to diffuse a high kick.
I had heard from inside the Australia camp that the Kangaroos were disappointed when Wigan's young scrum-half Sam Tomkins had been selected for the game. They felt he had the tools to cause them damage. He looked a little overawed at times in the opening 40 minutes but he was busy and effective after the break as he showed the sort of form that won him so many plaudits in Super League last season.
Danny McGuire teased and probed with his kicking game, while Eastmond seemed to thrive against the toughest of opponents and threw the raking pass that led to Lee Smith's try.
"They'll get a lot of confidence out of that," said Lockyer of England's second-half performance.
Sheens was asked whether he was impressed with England's young attacking players. The Australian coach, vastly experienced, strikes me as a fair-minded and honest individual. He nodded vigorously and said: "Young Tomkins worried us and their big men are good too."
England were certainly not perfect after the break. They knocked-on several times when in decent positions and, if an early Australian break had resulted in a try, perhaps the final score would have made grisly reading.
But Smith's side had plenty of possession in the second 40 minutes, which gave them the chance to show what they can do in attack but also forced errors from the Australians. Inglis and Petero Civoniceva knocked-on while Thurston was sin-binned for repeated infringements around the play-the-ball.
"Anyone under pressure is liable to make mistakes," said Ellis, who plays for Wests Tigers in the NRL and is keen to play down the idea that Australia are invincible. Ellis, incidentally, dedicated his try as a birthday present to Sheens, who turned 59 on Friday and coaches Ellis at Wests.
Tomkins concluded: "To come within 10 points we showed some grit and determination. When you have your fair share of the ball you can show people what you can do but in the first half we gave the ball away too often."
It would have been difficult to imagine England beating New Zealand - a brutal side and the world champions - if they had been thrashed by Australia but their second-half display must surely convince them they can do it. The crucial thing now is that England take their second-half form into next weekend's match in Huddersfield. Win that and they will qualify for the final.
"That is two poor first-half performances on the bounce and something we need to improve on," added Ellis with reference to their 34-12 defeat of France in the opening game, after England trailed 12-4 at the break.
Perhaps the last word should be left to Sheens.
Having seen both England and the Kiwis at close quarters after his team's 20-20 draw in their opening Four Nations game against New Zealand, the Kangaroos coach thinks England can get the result they need next week.
"If they get a lot of ball, a big side like that can worry you," he said. "They have a team that can get through to the final."