England performed far better in the opening game of the World Cup than their woeful preparation promised, but they were still no match for the tournament favourites.
Terrific for half an hour and competitive throughout, England overcame a build-up soured by defeat against Italy and indiscipline in the ranks to give a creditable account of themselves.
Thanks to the rather convoluted structure of the competition, they still have every chance of making the semi-finals and perhaps more importantly, a renewed faith that they can do so. Their World Cup is not over – indeed it might be just beginning.
After his infamous walk-out from the previous day’s press conference, England coach Steve McNamara sprang some surprises by including all three Burgess brothers, as well as starting with Brett Ferres, who was not even in the squad until Gareth Hock’s expulsion.
The much-vaunted opening ceremony began with a rendition by assorted tenors of “Highway to Hell” and there were plenty at the Millennium Stadium who feared that was what England would be embarking upon, unless they could produce something very special to match the occasion.
The initial signs of them doing so were not encouraging, a couple of soft penalties moving the Aussies upfield and producing situations which Sam Tomkins had to defuse.
The NRL-bound full-back was also instrumental in the game’s first try, his jinking run drawing a penalty for ball-stealing by James Tamou. England chose to run the ball via Kevin Sinfield and Rangi Chase, with Tomkins coming into the line to throw the pass that put Ryan Hall over in the corner. The freakish strength of George Burgess almost brought a second try, but his barge at the line was disallowed by the video referee.
No matter; on 19 minutes England were ten points ahead, Sinfield conjuring up a reverse kick which Leroy Cudjoe claimed and touched down despite pressure from two defenders.
It seemed too good to last – and it was. After 26 minutes, Cooper Cronk put up a kick, to which Greg Inglis not only beat Tomkins, but also had the presence of mind to slip the ball inside for Johnathan Thurston to score.
Then came the bitter blow of two tries in four minutes before the break, leaving England trailing despite being the better side for most of the first half. Greg Bird scored the first from Thurston’s short pass and then Billy Slater got away for a long-range solo.
There was more grief after the interval for England. Josh Charnley was ruled to have put a foot in touch fielding Cameron Smith’s kick.
You almost knew what would happen next; from the scrum possession the ball went through a series of Australian hands for Josh Morris to score in the corner.
That should really have been the game over, but that was not quite the case. Ferres won a penalty the hard way, locking horns with Paul Gallen, and this time there was no stopping George Burgess, taking James Roby’s short pass and powering over from close range.
Elder brother Sam was lucky not to suffer a more severe punishment than a penalty for a horrible-looking high tackle on Sam Thaiday.
From another penalty soon after, Thurston took Australia’s lead back up to eight.
It really was all over when Darius Boyd was credited with a try on the left flank, despite more than a hint of obstruction in the build-up.
Even then, there was a defiant late try from Charnley to make the scoreline look better. That is what this English performance was about; defying their woeful preparation and defying the air of pessimism it created.
What they could not defy was the gap in quality between the two teams – but there is no disgrace in that.
“We are frustrated,” McNamara said afterwards. “We started the game superbly and played with some great energy with the ball, but we gifted a lot of possession to the opposition and gave a lot of penalties away.
“We got a lot of positives from it, but there is a real sense of frustration that we didn’t quite go on and finish the job off.”
Australia: Slater; Morris, Inglis, Tate, Boyd; Thurston, Cronk; Scott, Smith, Tamou, Thaiday, Bird, Gallen. Substitutes used: Fifita, Farah, Lewis, Parker.
England: Tomkins; Charnley, Watkins, Cudjoe, Hall; Chase, Sinfield; Hill, Roby, G.Burgess, Westwood, Ferres, S.Burgess. Substitutes used: T Burgess, Ablett, Widdop, Mossop.
Referee: Henry Perenara (New Zealand).