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England give us reasons to believe

Paul Fletcher | 19:42 UK time, Saturday, 31 October 2009

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
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
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."

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  • Comment number 1.

    I think in the second half we finally got over the recent mental block of playing the aussies.
    I don't agree with your view that tom briscoe had a horrendous first half, it was mcguire, sinfield and smiths woeful defence that left holes everywhere, even israel folau would have looked poor to the casual observer in that position. Lee smith was lucky still to be on the field really, (he took his try well tho) he stood of inglis way too much. Eastmond did not stand off him, and meet him half way.
    Tomkins was almost ushered out the way in the first half as sinfield took way too much first reciever ball, it changed in the second when tomkins took more control.
    It would be nice to see Eastmond start centre next week, he's elusive and from that position he can get involved in pivot play like on ellis's try were he took the ball at first reciever. He's a trick of all trade's, i think he confussed the aussies a bit, by the fact that he can kick, pass and break defenders, just like tomkins.
    Would be nice to see them players stay in league for along time, at only 20 they looked quite classy at times in there first match against the aussies.

  • Comment number 2.

    paul - I've just watched highlights of the game. I see your point about the first-half defence - although I still think Smith and Briscoe had a really bad time of it (almost as bad as I did stuck in traffic on the way to the ground).

    What I really want to pick up on is Tomkins and Eastmond. England fans have got carried away and been crushingly disappointed many times in the past but I really think these two guys are the business. I just hope Tony Smith plays them against the Kiwis next weekend.

    I had a long chat with some senior people inside the Kangaroos camp today. They admitted the Aussies had been concerned about Tomkins but wondered whether he had the physique to play NRL. A fair enough question but he took his hits OK and did the bizzo second half. I thought so anyway.

  • Comment number 3.

    Rather poor game in my opinion,i thought you tea drinkers would come out all fire and brimstone and absolutely smash the Kangaroos. Don't you yearn for games of yesteryear when the Wally Lewis lead sides arrived on these shores and knew every team they would face would be a immense battle.

  • Comment number 4.

    High risk football bring rewards to England in the second half. England are not going to outmuscle the Kangaroos.
    The refereeing was poor and clearly ENGLAND-biased.
    The newer players showed their class but some of the older guard may have to up their games. Basically England picked the team for NZ yesterday rather than the team for Australia.
    Finally, we can confirm why Sam Burgess is calssed s good enough to go the NRL!

  • Comment number 5.

    I think he would have the physique to play the nrl. I mean if brett hodgson can be a stand out in the NRL at his 12stone 7lbs he was, then am sure tomkins could. Would like to see us improve our standard of super league, and a good rep comp be invented before everybody goes to the NRL.
    Also tomkins pulled of several one on one tackles on hayne and a couple of others that weren't particularly textbook but did the job, showing his determination. Some of our boys seemed to be scared of lockyer at times who is light all things said and done.
    I agree with you paul, it would be great to see tomkins and eastmond starting next week, they'll prob be our half back pairing in 2013 world cup.

  • Comment number 6.

    A good article, but a bit of lazy journalism/misquoting going on when you state that the Aussie coach said "Young Tomkins worried us and they're big men are good too."

    Surely it should read that "THEIR big men are good too".

    Apologies for being pedantic.

    As for the game, like a lot of people who travelled up north to Wigan yesterday the hurrendous traffic saw me enter the ground half an hour late. At least I saw the best of the England performance, but was wondering whether perhaps they could have delayed kick off slightly, as there were many fans turning up late?

  • Comment number 7.

    looks like I should get my own house in order before criticising others...hurrendous should be spelt horrendous. apologies

  • Comment number 8.

    I think Sinfield, Maguire, and Tom Briscoe had shocking games. Briscoes positioning was appalling, Maguire and Sinfield made mistake after mistake. Sam Tomkins had a decent game, but he is too greedy at times and needs to start spreading the ball quicker. There was 2 or 3 occasions when a fast pass outwide could have lead to an overlap, but he chose to keep the ball an cut back in. I would rather see Leon Pryce as standoff as he's got much better game awareness, and Maguire as scrum half. Tom Briscoe needs to be dropped, when Eastmond came on the defense shored up and we looked a much stronger unit.

    I think Tony Smith deserves both criticism and praise in the same breath. Its good that he's picking up and coming players and blooding them, but he's picking too many at once, and its weakening the team. I'm not sure on these particular players injury situations (if indeed they are injured), but we missed the likes of Gleeson, Yeaman, Pryce, Gilmour and Wilkin. If Wilkin is fit, I'd drop Sinfield to the bench.

    Also Sam Burgess was immense, he rattled the Aussies and they couldnt handle him, same goes for Crabtree!!

  • Comment number 9.

    Totally disagree with you about Sinfield Pimmies Pies. As a rule I am no fan of Sinfield but yesterday I thought he was sensational when he went to dummy half and he really controlled the ruck and the speed we played and that is how we rattled the Aussies.

    Move Smith to right wing, Eastmond to play centre!

    Long season for Peacock, he looked totally shot yesterday.

  • Comment number 10.

    Australia tore England to pieces. Their backs exploited the difference in class. 2nd half they eased off, while England received a roasting at half time.

    One positive for me was England now have a chance of having a genuine quality player at 6 & 7. I don't know which one (Eastmond or Tomkins) is better suited to each position, perhaps Wigan & St Helens fans could enlighten me.

    Then the coach needs to work on the rest of the backline regarding lines of running, timing of the pass & defense. No more catching the ball standing still, make the attacking line steeper with more depth.

    The game against New Zealand is still a very big ask...

  • Comment number 11.

    Petteril - guilty as charged M'Lord. Don't know how that happened. Reckon my brain must have still been fried from the mental stress of hours sat in traffic wondering if I'd make kick-off.

    Not long after the start plenty of home fans must have wondered why they'd bothered at all.

    However, as I said last week I see this tournament as one in which England must be trying to produce results while also looking to the future. The team are in transition with a rebuilt back division.

    I certainly thought - and a few of the posts from people who I presume support either the Aussies or the Kiwis hint at this as well - that in the likes of Tomkins and Eastmond we saw performances that suggest England have young players who could have bright futures at the top level.

    I hope we see more of this next week when England play the Kiwis - and that the match is a gripping and engaging contest befitting of a high-stakes game.

    All in all, I think this tournament is shaping up pretty well. Still reckon the Aussies will win it.

  • Comment number 12.

    "England generated some much-needed momentum!!!" your having a laugh, right?
    If you believe that then you are more off target than the comentators on the box.
    Maybe if we can convince the opposition that they have an unassailable lead prior to kick off, then the lads will have 80 minutes to play rugby.
    Lessed we forget the kiwis will be up for the game as soon as they complete the haka. Maybe we could get the England team to perform our own version of synchronized gurning to remove any pre-match nerves or inhabitions.
    Any team can score against any other team. England looked to have a different attitude in the second half, yet so did Australia. The combination of one side playing like 13 talented individuals (England) and one side playing with a "JOB DONE" attitude (Australia) resulted in the former coming out on top. The problem is, England do not look like an international side with a plan from the kick-off, not one that suits their talents anyway.
    England need to play basic rugby league in defence and have a go in attack, UK style. We are not robotic Aussies or monsterous Polynesians blessed with speed, size, agility etc. etc.
    We need a defensive line of 12 men across with a sweeping fullback, no charging in and offering gaps, 1 line. Let the opposition make 10 yards per play, thats 50 yards, 60 max. If we can make them start in their own half, job done.
    When England get the ball it would help if they looked like they knew what to do with it, even better what their team mate was going to do with it, maybe then they could even tag along.

  • Comment number 13.

    Before the game we spoke of the England forward's size and strength and how we could match the Aussie pack down the middle; this was proved correct. We also spoke of our inexperience and vulnerability in the three-quarters; this too was proved correct.

    It was very much a 'game of two halves'.

    The first half was an exhibition of Australia's attacking power and their ability to cut through players, as seen with 4 tries down the right hand side inside 25 minutes. England gave them way too much space and time; they failed to close the middle men, i.e. Lockyer and Thurston.

    I thought James Graham was awesome throughout and although his efforts were in vein he deserves much credit. At one point he was leading the chase after a kick through and made the tackle whilst his team mates were still 9 or 10 yards behind him. Big Eorl Crabtree did very well when he came on and the biggest man in Super League justified his selection with some good runs and his defence was pretty sound.

    After a shaky start Sam Burgess put some big hits in, ran the ball well and scored a good try. He seems to have impressed a few Aussies too which is good. I though Morley and Peacock were Morley and Peacock; hard-hitting and uncompromising. Ellis was quality too.

    The second half was such a contrast from the first as England settled down, structured their plays better and built a bit of confidence. My Aussie mate was texting me from Brisbane all the way through the game and he kept saying that England were trying to play the Aussies in an NRL-style when if they played in the accustomed Super League-style (complete sets, good kick and pressure the ball-returner) something we did not do for the whole of the first 40.

    He said that the Aussies hate to play against a team who pressurise them. They don't like it 'up them' and when England started to do that you saw an Aussie side that had to defend for their lives for long period in the second period.

    Australia was explosive for half an hour, England gradually improved over the remaining 50 minutes. England was arguably the better team for 50 minutes and Australia failed to score a single point in that time. I take a lot from that.

    Australia are not super-human, they are beatable and I believe that the young lads, Eastmond, Briscoe, Tomkins etc will come away better off after the experience. These lads can play; they are good players so we can now forget about wrapping them up in cotton wool and babysitting them. If you were to ask them, I'm, betting they would say the same.

    Next up is New Zealand and all together different proposition for them. If we can sneak a win, we have every chance of beating Australia in the final knowing what we know now. We have to start believing in our own abilities and our own capabilities. We have to stop hiding from the Aussies or else we will always be in their shadow.

    In 5 years time, with the conveyor belt of young, English talent coming through, you will start to see the reduced SL overseas quota paying dividends - I guarantee it!


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