England pushed holders Australia all the way in an enthralling World Cup opener before conceding eight points in the last five minutes to go down 18-4 at Melbourne’s AAMI Park.
Coach Wayne Bennett had suggested he would settle for an honourable defeat in England’s first group game in the hope that they might improve sufficiently to get their revenge in the final so, from that point of view, it was mission accomplished.
It could have been so much better as England gave the 2,000 travelling fans plenty to cheer about, but the big worry is a knee injury sustained by talismanic forward Sam Burgess.
The result means England will now face a likely semi-final in Auckland against New Zealand while the Kangaroos can take the easy route to Brisbane after captain Cameron Smith, who equalled Clive Churchill’s record of 35 consecutive appearances, led his team to an eighth successive win under Mal Meninga.
It was action-packed from start to finish, even if the standard left a lot to be desired, with even the normally immaculate Billy Slater demonstrating he is not immune from error.
Among a host of impressive performers, winger Jermaine McGillvary took his try tally to five in six matches in opening the scoring after only four minutes but also caught the eye with some terrific defence and some determined relieving runs that were appreciated by the hard-working forwards.
Bennett was forced into making a late change, Warrington second rower Ben Currie drafted in for his debut in place of an ailing St Helens prop Alex Walmsley, but they were far from over-awed.
Australia looked distinctly vulnerable in the opening quarter and the tourists were good value for their early 4-0 lead, courtesy of McGillvary’s try which was the result of long, looping passes from Sean O’Loughlin and Gareth Widdop.
Demonstrating great tenacity, England harried their opponents from the start and were first to dive on the loose ball.
They also scrambled superbly after Australia forced three goal-line drop-outs in the space of five minutes but then became careless while in possession and that enabled their hosts to build pressure.
The Kangaroos got their first try on 22 minutes after second rower Matt Gillett wrong-footed Luke Gale on his way to the line before providing the final pass seven minutes later for Slater to jink his way over.
Smith kicked one conversion as Australia led 10-4 at the break but England’s playmaking options were considerably reduced when Burgess succumbed to a knee injury sustained in a tackle from Gillett after initially trying to play on.
Rather than having a demoralising effect, though, England showed tremendous resolve to stay in the game and, with calmer finishing, they might have claimed at least a draw.
Replacement hooker James Roby was held up over the line after England profited from a second handling error by Slater and winger Ryan Hall had a sight of the line before being bundled into the corner flag by debutant Dane Gagai and Slater.
The game was finally settled five minutes from the end when second rower Elliott Whitehead was penalised for a ball steal and Smith kicked the goal that opened up a two-score lead before centre Josh Dugan swooped on an attacking kick from Widdop to sprint 80 minutes for Australia’s third try.