England coach Wayne Bennett drew encouragement from his team’s 18-4 defeat by Australia in their opening World Cup match in Melbourne.
A fourth-minute try from winger Jermaine McGillvary gave England a dream start and they were still only 10-4 behind with five minutes to go but the holders went two scores in front with a penalty and rubbed salt into their visitors’ wounds with a late breakaway try from Josh Dugan.
England should still qualify for the knockout stages, with further group games to come against Lebanon and France, but of more concern is a knee injury sustained by star forward Sam Burgess.
However, Bennett was pleased with the way his side coped in Burgess’ absence and hopes to have the South Sydney skipper back in time for the semi-final in Auckland on November 25.
The Australian thinks yesterday’s performance was much improved on their last meeting with the Kangaroos, when they went down 38-16 at the London Stadium in the 2016 Four Nations Series.
“I was pretty happy with it overall actually,” Bennett said. “I thought it was a top effort by the guys.
“They’ve improved a lot since London. There’s no comparison.
“They hung in there really good despite some tricky situations and played some good football. They reduced their errors and, although we are still not where we want to be, it was a huge improvement.
“Tonight wasn’t a destination, it was part of a journey, we want to remind ourselves of that.
“We’ve got the next four of five weeks to get all these little things right.”
A try from second rower Matt Gillett enabled Australia to draw level in the 22nd minute and, although they went in front seven minutes later when full-back Billy Slater capped his comeback with a try, the holders were never able to pull away.
“We got our fair share of the ball in the second half but we didn’t quite get over the line,” said England captain Sean O’Loughlin.
“At six behind we were still pretty comfortable. The penalty meant we were chasing the game and they got that breakaway try at the end.
“I thought we matched them reasonably well all over the park but a few errors cost you in these big games. Both sides are a little bit rusty still.
“We’re not pleased with the loss but we can take a lot from it.”
Australia coach Mal Meninga was delighted with his team’s victory but believes England will improve throughout the tournament.
“I think both teams have got improvement in them,” he said. “But it was a really important victory for us tonight because it sets up our campaign and I guess it puts England under a bit of pressure.
“I thought it was a great way to kick off the Rugby League World Cup, to have the two oldest foes going head to head and it was a great challenge for us and I thought we handled it really well.”
Meninga will anxiously wait to discover the extent of the pectoral muscle injury sustained by Australia forward Jake Trbojevic.
“He has gone to hospital with a pec injury and we all know how serious they can be,” he said.