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Hats off to England - but can they beat the Aussies?

Paul Fletcher | 00:13 UK time, Sunday, 8 November 2009

At the Galpharm Stadium.

The scenes inside the England dressing room shortly after the final whistle on Saturday evening told their own story.

Tony Smith's team had just defeated world champions New Zealand to reach the final of the Four Nations and the normally reserved England coach appeared to be leading the victory song as his charges joined him and stamped their studs on the ground.

Smith raised his arms in triumph, another unusually extrovert gesture, as the singing finished - but it would take a mean-spirited person to deny the likeable Australian his brief display of celebration.

The 42-year-old's reputation was at its lowest point 12 months ago after England's dismal World Cup campaign down under. His team left home with great expectations but mustered only a solitary win over Papua New Guinea before a thrashing by Australia was followed by two losses to the Kiwis.

Smith took it hard and retreated to the sanctity of his farmhouse close to Huddersfield to nurse his bruises and reflect upon what had gone wrong.

The England coach decided that his ageing side needed overhauling, especially in the back division. It was time to enter a transitional phase, to build for the future.

He selected virtually an entirely new set of backs for this tournament and further underlined his commitment to youth by selecting Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins, both 20, as the half-back combination for the winner-takes-all match against the Kiwis.

Kyle EastmondKyle Eastmond crashes over for England's opening try

Both justified their selection by showing glimpses of the game-breaking qualities that mark them out as future superstars. Tomkins' cross-field kick under extreme pressure for Peter Fox's first score was a sensational example of what he can do, while Eastmond, slippery and elusive, scored his team's opening try.

But what perhaps really stood out from their performances was their defensive work, with Tomkins helping shut down New Zealand skipper Benji Marshall to the extent that the Wests Tigers half-back showed his frustration by squaring up to his younger opponent.

England played with grit, courage and a bloodied-minded determination that helped them edge a tight and engrossing match - and it was a victory built on defence. So porous in the first half against the Kangaroos, Smith's team have now conceded just 12 points in 120 minutes of football against last year's World Cup finalists.

England were stretched out wide at times - Ben Maulino's opening try for the Kiwis being one example - but there were no gaping holes for the Kiwis to exploit. Skipper Jamie Peacock talks about the team needing to use its 'smarts', and there was plenty in evidence at the Galpharm Stadium.

Smith had reverted to his trademark poker face by the time he answered questions from the press, but it was clear that he had found the defensive performance particularly satisfying.

"The way we defended was very committed," said Smith. "We did not get split too many times."

Smith must also be credited for making the late decision to switch Kevin Sinfield to start as hooker. Sinfield, of course, is a loose forward, but Smith's bold selection was rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance from the Leeds Rhinos skipper.

Sinfield was far from perfect - at times his distribution from dummy half was too slow - but he was central to an effective kicking game, with a series of well-executed bombs forcing a string of errors from the New Zealand back three.

"I'm very, very disappointed," said Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney after the match. "But I thought the English were wonderful tonight."

Smith felt the victory was a "real shot in the arm for Northern Hemisphere rugby and Super League". I think it is hard to argue with his assessment. The very fact that England have reached the final represents real progress. Doing it with a young squad bodes well for the future.

Kevin Sinfield Kevin Sinfield is hauled to the ground by New Zealand's Thomas Leuluai

OK, the cynics will say that the Kiwis came into this tournament missing key players, but they didn't look too shabby as they drew with Australia in their opening match - a game they deserved to win.

That was the best performance of New Zealand's tournament, whereas England have progressively improved.

The other factor is the spirit in the squad. England's World Cup campaign was dogged by persistent rumours of cliques and splits between the sizeable St Helens and Leeds contingents.

I interviewed a couple of England players after Saturday's match and each one was interrupted by various team-mates cracking jokes at each other's expense. It is the sort of banter you hear quite often at club level, but with an international outfit it shows that individuals from different clubs feel comfortable with one another.

Of course, none of this means that England will beat Australia next weekend. The Kangaroos tore Smith's side to shreds for half an hour in Wigan, and only after the result was beyond doubt did England begin their comeback.

England and, before them Great Britain, have been built up in the past only for reality to come crashing down. Australia's 44-4 Tri-Nations win over GB at Elland Road in 2004 is a prime example.

I think reaching the final is a satisfying return for the current England team but, nonetheless, I was struck by the deadpan line delivered by the old warhorse Peacock in the wake of England's victory on Saturday.

Asked about his emotions after the win over New Zealand, he replied: "There is nothing to celebrate. There is no champagne in the dressing room."

Don't tell him England can already feel satisfied with their Four Nations campaign.

You can follow me throughout the season at twitter.com/Paul__Fletcher

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    A shot in the arm it is, but it'll be short-lived if we don't give the Aussies a game next week. I've 30+ people going, within 5 mins of the result last night all the spare tickets i had were taken up - a goof performance and it'll be 50+ going in future years...

    Just hope things go well next weeks. It's an ideal time to give it a go though - our forwards are more aggressive and better than the Aussies in my opinion. The technical side of the NRL has taken a lot away from the Aussie forward game - no Webke, no Tallis, and no real aggression of real go forward means England can dominate up front. The threat though is the technical skills of the Aussie backs...this is where i think England are still weak, but must be seen as making ground. Tomkins, Myler, Eastmond are the first generation of players who will have been entirly coached under the more technical coaching systems that the RFL brought in with David Waite. Few leagies ever say it, but hats off to the RFL for that strategic decision then...

  • Comment number 2.

    There is still a massive gap between the NRL & Super League. Use it to learn from, avoid the Eddie & Stevo usual overeaction.

    What England proved on Saturday night is that they have a forward pack & halves combination that can compete & win at international level.

    Tony Smith has been proved right to carry out his post World Cup cull. He cut the serial failures, used to losing at this level.

    England still need to find world class centres & a fullback. I thought the wingers looked pretty good.

    Game breakers are hard to come by, that's where the Aussies have them in heaps. Inglis, Hodges, Jennings, Folau (all centres) & Slater, Hayne (both fullbacks).

    Who are England's best players at 1, 3 & 4? Super League fans please comment.

  • Comment number 3.

    SouthsNZ - sadly, I think you've seen them in this tournament.

    I would have liked to see Lee Smith given a go at full back ahead of the hesitant Shaun Briscoe, but as he departs for pastures richer at the end of the tournament we'd only be back to square one again.

    Keith Senior was head and shoulders the best centre in SL in 2009 but made himself unavailable, then changed his mind before the tournament started so his commitment was questionable.

    You could probably then toss a coin to separate Shenton, Bridge and Ryan Atkins (who opted not to delay surgery on an injury so he could be fit for the new SL season). Unfortunately it's a position where England are incredibly weak in the now.

    There are some bright lights on the horizon however in the likes of Kallum Watkins (Leeds) and Michael Lawrence (Huddersfield) among others - big, physical units of the type the antipodeans seem to roll out at will but with some nice touches to their games too.

    Rugby (of either code) in the UK just doesn't get its hands on enough of the gifted young multi-sport athletes who can pick and choose what they want to do, unlike the situation in the southern hemisphere where the oval ball games are seen as the ultimate sporting competition. If Greg Inglis had been born in Wakefield, someone would have probably got him playing professional soccer or competing as an Olympic rower by now.

  • Comment number 4.

    No, England can't beat the Aussies, not even in the same league.

    If we're being honest, they wouldn't have beaten a full-strength NZ team, even though it was a home game for them...

  • Comment number 5.

    mikemmp - you are quite right, Saturday is a big match for England. A few casual fans might actually take notice during the build-up and have half an eye on the final, so a good performance from England is a must and a win, calm down I hear you say, would be a massive boost for the international game in general.

    But we've been here countless times with England GB in the past and had any illusions of the great leap forward shattered. This is an England team in transition but it has performed pretty well over their previous one-and-a-half games.

    I just hope that for the good of the sport over here and for the long-term plans to develop the international game England really do give the Aussies a game next Saturday, give the fans reason to jump out of their seats, give them reasons to think a few years down the line and smile.

  • Comment number 6.

    SouthsNZ - A bit cheeky to complain about Eddie and Stevo on a beeb thread, just turn the sound down mate.
    Until we prioritise these tournaments, we are always a step behind. Smith should have been given a squad to mould ages ago, but our season has only just finished.
    The disgrace of it all is should England win, the BBC will not have shown either victory. Instead we will be treated to the borefest that is England v Argentina on BBC3.

  • Comment number 7.

    Andy Gilderdale - Thanks for your tips for up & coming three quarters, I will keep an eye out for them. Agree Lee Smith would make a better attacking full back than Briscoe, but he's off to Rugby now, so chance gone. Senior is one of the old guard that Tony Smith culled after the World Cup, but I agree he has been one of the best in SL this year.

    Since living in Auckland, it's refreshing to see kids & adults alike spend their freetime in parks throwing the footie around. Their aspirations are to make it in League (Warriors) or Rugby (All Blacks). Not a soccer ball in sight. Great. Same in Aussie except it's League (NRL) or Aussie Rules (AFL).

    Buggritt - I know Eddie & Stevo are Sky, not BBC, but the mindless optimism they display rather than trying to learn from the NRL is quite annoying. The commentator from the BBC isn't much better. 'The Aussies are looking worried now' Really?

  • Comment number 8.

    My Aussie mate in Brisbane text me during the England/Australia game asking why we were trying to play the green & gold NRL style instead of SL style. I couldn't answer the question because I did not know.

    What I do know is that we played SL style against the Kiwi's and came away with a resounding victory. In order to be the Aussies, we have to start well, turn them around and put them under pressure in their own half. That is how SL is played and that is how we have to approach the game.

    I'm going to Elland Road and can not wait!

    Come on England!

  • Comment number 9.

    England CAN definitely win this game. Whether they DO of course is a different matter.

    I could be totally wrong but at least this side doesn't seem beaten before it has set foot on the pitch (like usual). Great to see a fair level of respect but also confidence and no bowing and scraping to them.

    I'm going and looking forward to it. Not taking anything for granted, a good close game (in our favour of course) will do for me!

  • Comment number 10.

    I liked the blog, good sign about the banter going on. Good shout from mikeammp with the waite thing. Southnz, lee smith is a better attacking full back than briscoe but briscoe is a great defender, smith is terrible, shown by his disappearance against the aussies. Briscoe gets the hard metres and is not afraid to get hit, he may not be the classiest player in the world, but i'd say he is the braviest. With regard to our three quarters i think wingers fox, hall and i think cudjoe are definitely going to prove themselves even more in years to come. Like everyones saying, centres are a tough one, i think shenton and bridge stood up well defensively last week. But attacking wise we are a little flawed, tom briscoe when he plays centre for hull more this year may be a shout, he can break anyone in the tackle, defensivley he will never be a winger on the international stage though. Atkins could be a classy player for the future attacking wise. Comparing our backs and the aussies backs is a bit daft really because there's no comparison with the likes of hayne, folau, inglis and slater. But until any 'freaks' appear for the eng side, it will all be about stopping the aussies, and dominating in the forwards.
    The one thing i would say about the game on saturday though is a player like billy slater is very arrogant, to arrogant, put a bit of pressure on him and he'll blow up, we need to target the likes of him and thurston for their fragile tempers. Slater showed his arrogance last year when he ignored passing to lockyer for the first try in the world cup final, and was lucky to not go in touch. Lets not forget it was slater that gave nz the lead late on in the world cup final last year, with an implosion of the mind! Since 04's drubbing, the aussies haven't won a major international final in 80 mins.

  • Comment number 11.

    Agreed mate. Get Thurston and Slater wound up early doors and they will lose their rag in no time!

 

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