The wait for a British win over Australia in a tournament or series goes on. It now stands at 37 years, but rarely in that time have they flattered to deceive quite as they did for almost an hour in this Four Nations final.
With the forwards bossing the show, England were the better side for over half the game. With cooler finishing they would have been further ahead than a mere couple of points. That was no sort of cushion when they tired and Australia clicked into gear with six unanswered tries in the time remaining – three of them from that outstanding full-back Billy Slater.
Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston were equally destructive at half-back while Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne bristled with menace outside them. England, for all their brawn in the pack and all the bravery in defence of players such as Shaun Briscoe, had no answer to that brains trust and that wealth of skill.
"Better but not good enough," was the assessment of Tony Smith, who will sit down with the League this week to decide whether he should continue as England coach.
"I was proud of the effort and I'm not sure that the score was a reflection of the contest," he added. "It was a reflection of some special individuals Australia have. They came up with some special tries that blew the scoreline out."
England had got part of what they wanted when it rained steadily for most of the day in Leeds. But the pitch stayed depressingly pristine and not particularly cut out for the type of tight, forward-orientated battle they craved.
As expected, England's forwards hit Australia with everything early on, tackling and running with ferocious commitment. Kyle Eastmond and Sam Burgess went close before the Aussies showed the potential of their backline, only a superb tackle from Briscoe denying Brett Morris in the corner.
That looked an even more perfectly timed tackle when England went ahead immediately after, Burgess taking Kevin Sinfield's pass and blasting through. A man in support on either side gave him the chance to dummy Slater for a memorable try, converted by Sinfield.
Cameron Smith put his restart kick dead and England should have been 12-0 ahead as Burgess surged through again but he hung on when a simple pass would have given Sam Tomkins a try. England were punished for that blunder when James Graham's pass was intercepted by Thurston.
England scrambled back to negate the threat but on the last tackle of the set the ball zipped to the right wing and Morris was outside the defence for a try that Thurston converted. "I'm not sure it was a walk-in try," said Smith of Burgess's split-second decision. "But it was a big turnaround when they went to the other end and scored."
The English forwards were still having the better of the contest and they set the platform from which Eastmond launched a kick won by Peter Fox, leaping above Hayne to restore the lead.
Hayne got his own back when his run and kick set up Inglis, who was credited with a try by the video referee Phil Bentham, even though his grounding looked unconvincing. Thurston landed the conversion and a penalty to put England undeservedly in arrears by four points after a half they had largely dominated.
As in the first half, England began the second with waves of forward-fuelled attacks. They got their reward with a quite superb try that briefly put them back in the lead. Tomkins showed his class with a reverse pass to Gareth Ellis, steaming through on the angle to put Burgess in for his second.
Then Australia went into overdrive. Slater put them back into the lead and, within five minutes, Morris's second from man-of-the-match Thurston's precise kick put them clear. After that, Australia ran riot. Slater's acrobatic leap clawed the ball back from beyond the dead-ball line for Smith to complete a freak try. Thurston and Lockyer combined magically to give Slater his second and, after Hayne had scored, he completed his hat-trick and England's bitter disappointment.
England Briscoe; Fox, Bridge, Shenton, Hall; Tomkins, Eastmond; Morley, Sinfield, Graham, Peacock, Ellis, Burgess. Substitutes used: Crabtree, Wilkin, Westwood, Roby.
Australia Slater; Morris, Hodges, Inglis, Hayne; Lockyer, Thurston; Hannant, Smith, Civoniceva, Lewis, Gallen, Hindmarsh. Substitutes used: White, Thaiday, Watmough, Gidley.
Referee: L Williamson (New Zealand).Reuse content