Australia keep their distance from England

DAVE HADFIELD

reports from Wembley

Australia 16 England 8

The names and places might change, but British sides always find a way of losing to Australia when it really matters.

They managed it in the Halifax Centenary World Cup final on Saturday by losing sight of the principles that had taken them to Wembley with every chance of reversing recent rugby league history.

Fundamental errors, coupled with a fatal shortage of initiative and enterprise, undermined all England's hopes. They could argue that they had been unlucky in a series of borderline decisions which went against them; for the most part, they saved their breath, because they knew they had been beaten by a far better side on the day.

That must have been the really annoying thing for the coach, Phil Larder, and his captain, Denis Betts, as they listened through the open windows of the press conference to a sound that has become all too familiar - that of Australians celebrating.

It remains true that, man for man, England had better players than Australia in this World Cup. That, for all Bob Fulton's sophistry on the subject, is largely due to a dozen world class players being left at home for political reasons.

What is depressing is that, even without Daley and Clyde et al, they were still good enough when they had to be. Ever since 1990, we have been that close; take out virtually a whole generation of their cream and we are still that close.

Saturday's defeat brought back memories of the 1992 World Cup final, also at Wembley. In fairness, it was not quite that bad.

Three years ago, the appropriate analogy for the home team's performance was that of a man who hoped to win the lottery without buying a ticket. This year, they pecked and picked at the issue as though it was a scratch- card when a bolder investment was needed.

Too much reliance was placed on the kicking game of Bobbie Goulding, which was never at its best. Too much went straight down the throat of the Australian full-back, Tim Brasher, and only once, in the first minute, did he attempt his trademark - the hugely productive cross-kick for his winger.

Part of the explanation is that England rarely worked their way into the right position to give Goulding the angle for that ploy. They might also have done better if Andy Farrell had been able to play a full part. He has the range in his boot to drive back a defence from anywhere on the field, but his groin injury restricted him to kicking occasionally and gingerly.

He was also short of full mobility and spent half-time pacing the corridor outside the dressing room, rather than risk sitting down and stiffening up.

There was something stiff and inflexible about the whole English performance. They looked anxious from the start and ruined an opening phase of pressure that brought a Goulding penalty by conceding possession straight from the kick-off.

Larder does not publically criticise his players lightly, but he described the way Phil Clarke had let the ball run off his foot as ''a very big error''.

It produced Australia's first try and, although it looked a debatable one at the time, the far-side camera showed that Rod Wishart had indeed got pressure on the ball.

Likewise the ruling that Martin Offiah had put a foot in touch before getting the ball away for Paul Newlove to follow up and touch down. It was another close call, but slow motion reveals that Offiah's back foot had shaved the line.

Had the game's most prolific winger been his true self, the question would not have arisen, because he would have flown in without going near the touchline or the Australian cover defence.

But the departure, temporary or permanent, of Offiah's pace was plain to see in the struggle he had to shake off Steve Menzies at the start of his run. Admittedly Menzies is fast for a forward; that is what Offiah is at the moment - fast for a forward.

There was no debate about it when Newlove went over to give England hope early in the second half, but again possession was lost straight after the restart when Mick Cassidy knocked on.

The moment when England could have snatched the match came when Tony Smith broke through from Betts' pass and appeared to be tripped by Brasher, the last line of defence.

The video certainly suggested that it was the prostrate Brasher's leg rather than his hand that brought Smith down, but Betts' view, as good as anyone's, was that his team-mate had fallen over his own feet.

That is a fitting epitaph for a display which promised so much but delivered little. England did not deserve to win and, if Brasher's clinching try for Australia was a messy one, it produced a final scoreline that reflected the real gap between the sides.

Even without a galaxy of stars, there was a basic soundness about them that England could not match - although a few more players as ill as the admirable Gary Connolly would have helped - and their pivotal trio of Geoff Toovey, Brad Fittler and the man of the match, Andrew Johns, controlled the game.

Control was what England lacked. ''When you make as many errors and concede as many penalties as we did, you are committing suicide,'' Larder said. You can carve that on another headstone in the graveyard where British hopes against Australia are laid to rest - a place that is already over- crowded.

England: Tries Newlove; Goals Goulding 2. Australia: Tries Brasher, Wishart; Goals A Johns 4.

AUSTRALIA: Brasher (Sydney Tigers); Wishart (Illawarra), Coyne (St George), Hill (Manly), Dallas (Sydney Bulldogs); Fittler (Penrith), Toovey (Manly); Pay (Sydney Bulldogs), A Johns (Newcastle), Carroll (Manly), Menzies (Manly), Larson (North Sydney), Dymock (Sydney Bulldogs). Substitutes: J Smith (Sydney Bulldogs) for Carroll, 50; Carroll for Smith, 61; Smith for Pay, 76.

ENGLAND: Radlinski (Wigan); Robinson (Wigan), Connolly (Wigan), Newlove (Bradford), Offiah (Wigan); Smith (Castleford), Goulding (St Helens); Harrison (Halifax), Jackson (Sheffield), Platt (Auckland), Betts (Auckland), Clarke (Sydney City), Farrell (Wigan). Substitutes: Cassidy (Wigan) for Harrison, 30; Harrison for Platt, 61; Joynt (St Helens) for Cassidy, 69; Platt for Harrison, 70.

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

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