England had a last-minute try disallowed as Australia held on for a 16-12 victory in a gripping encounter in Melbourne to keep alive their chances of victory in the Four Nations Series.
The Kangaroos were clinging to their four-point lead when Leeds winger Ryan Hall attempted to touch the ball down ahead of full-back Greg Inglis following Liam Farrell’s grubber kick to the corner with just 46 seconds left on the clock.
Referee Gerard Sutton handed the decision on to his namesake Bernard, the video official, who ruled that Hall had failed to find downward pressure and moments later Australia were celebrating a face-saving victory in front of a 20,585 crowd at AAMI Park.
The result means that England need to beat New Zealand in Dunedin next Saturday and hope their points difference is good enough to secure a place in the Wellington final a week later.
Hall was earlier in sensational form as England, wearing special jerseys to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Rorke’s Drift Test, emulated the spirit of the 1914 team to establish a 12-4 lead.
England had been boosted by the return from injury of skipper Sean O’Loughlin while McNamara sprung a surprise by handing a debut to centre Dan Sarginson, a decision that paid off wonderfully well.
England gave away four penalties inside the opening 10 minutes and they conceded the first try when impressive centre Michael Jennings finished off.
Cameron Smith surprisingly missed the conversion and England struck back with two tries in six minutes to establish a 12-4 lead.
Hall came up with a brilliant 50-metre break out of defence to create the position for Sam Tomkins to get Watkins over for his eighth try in 10 appearances before accepting Sarginson’s wonderful one-handed pass to add to his record haul of 22 tries for his country. Gareth Widdop added both conversions to open up an eight-point advantage and it could have been more. Australia missed a glorious opportunity late in the first half and then when Inglis was denied a try on 46 minutes for an obstruction.
Widdop and Sarginson then combined to bring down Inglis just short of the line but the game was blown wide open in the next play when debutant Ben Hunt grabbed a try two minutes after entering the action, touching down Smith’s grubber kick on the last tackle. Smith added the goal to cut the deficit to two points and the Kangaroos were back in front six minutes later when Cherry-Evans found Inglis on his inside to touchdown for his 25th try for his country.
Smith’s second goal made it 16-12 and that’s the way it stayed.
Despite the outcome, McNamara insisted he was proud of his team’s performance. “It’s a tough one to take,” he said. “Ryan Hall put in a world-class performance and we had 17 warriors out there. I thought we were the better team and were in control for large parts of the game.”
England face an anxious wait to discover if today’s international match-review panel will take action against O’Loughlin for an alleged trip on Smith and a potential “chicken wing” tackle by Farrell on Inglis.
England: S Tomkins, Charnley, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall, Widdop), Smith, G Burgess, Hodgson, Graham , Farrell, J Tomkins, O’Loughlin. Replacements: Clark, Ferres, T Burgess, Hill.
Australia: Inglis, Mansour, Jennings, Walker, Mata’utia, Cherry-Evans, Cronk, Woods, Smith, Thaiday, Scott, Bird, Parker. Replacements: Cordner, Hunt, Klemmer, Papalii.
referee: Gerard Sutton.
Scotland were crowned European champions in their absence in Wrexham on Sunday after Ireland fell agonisingly short in their brave attempt to overhaul them.
Ireland rounded off the tournament with a 46-14 win over wooden spoonists Wales to draw level with France and the Scots, who take the first title in their 20-year history courtesy of a superior points difference.