England look for redemption

Australia are favourites but France must justify their place as the Four Nations kicks off today, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

All four nations go into the biggest rugby league tournament in this country since the 2000 World Cup this weekend with plenty to prove.

For England, despite adopting a Basil Fawltyish "don't mention the World Cup" attitude to their failure in that competition last year, this is the one chance of redempton most of their players will get. Success for those who have survived the cull will be to show that they are not really as bad as they looked in Australia 12 months ago.

They have a relatively gentle start in the Four Nations tonight against France, for whom the challenge is to show that they should be here at all.

Adding the French to the existing Tri-Nations format is good in theory – it produces a tidier tournament and encourages their domestic game, which should already be benefiting from the Catalan Dragons' successes in Super League.

But they have to be good enough and the signs from their first outing under Bobbie Goulding, a 64-10 thrashing by England in June, were not encouraging. Something close to a 15,000-strong full house at Doncaster will see whether they can improve sufficiently to justify their inclusion, but it is a brave man who would bet against the eventual winners at Elland Road on 14 November being in action at The Stoop tomorrow.

Australia need to justify their status as perennial favourites after two defeats by New Zealand in finals in recent years. They have also had the sort of scandal-ridden domestic season that puts an extra onus on a talented squad to show its skills.

New Zealand have their usual patched-up, thrown-together look but, as both Australia and England will testify, that is when they are at their most dangerous.

AUSTRALIA

Prospects Despite defeat in that World Cup, Australia start as obvious favourites. Even without the injured Israel Folau, they have a dazzling back line, with Darren Lockyer, on what is probably his last trip, providing the bullets for them to fire. The forwards, without cornerstone Steven Price, look slightly less overwhelming, despite the return of the barn-storming Nathan Hindmarsh. It is there that other teams will want to take them on, especially if England's Jamie Peacock gets his wish for foul weather. Tim Sheens, an overdue choice as national coach, is a safe pair of hands at the end of a turbulent Australian season and two tournament defeats at the hands of the Kiwis in the last four years will insure against any complacency.

Coach Tim Sheens.

Captain Darren Lockyer.

ENGLAND

Prospects England have nothing to fear in the forwards, with players such as Jamie Peacock, Adrian Morley and James Graham champing at the bit to avenge last year's World Cup embarrassments. Gareth Ellis should show obvious benefits from his first year in Australia and there is more pace on the wings and at full-back.

The headache lies in deciding on the best half-back combination, with Kyle Eastmond and Richard Myler both pressuring Sam Tomkins for a place – and both having something distinctive to offer. The squad is so weak in the centres that a phone call to Keith Senior would surely have been well worth the price.

Coach Tony Smith.

Captain Jamie Peacock.

NEW ZEALAND

Prospects How can the world champions be only third favourites? Because we never know what to expect from the Kiwis, that's how.

They are without half a dozen of the players who won the World Cup in Brisbane last year, but it has to be remembered that they were widely written off for that tournament as being too far below full strength. New Zealand have the knack of throwing relative unknowns into these situations and getting great performances from them. Captain Benji Marshall, now a senior citizen at 24, tips second-rower Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and centre Junior Sau as the likely lads this time. The calm, strong coaching of Stephen Kearney is another major asset.

Coach Stephen Kearney.

Captain Benji Marshall.

FRANCE

Prospects Incorporating France into the Four Nations is a leap of faith. Goulding was a jaw-dropping appointment and his regime hardly got off to an encouraging start with a drubbing by England in June. He has a far stronger squad this time, however, including the best French players from the successful Catalan Dragons. Goulding has only one of the three Australians he wanted to include, but Clint Greenshields is a marvellous full-back who will add an extra attacking dimension. Much also depends on the new captain, Oliver Elima, who scored more tries than any other forward in Super League this year. All the same, it will be a sensation if France win a game.

Coach Bobbie Goulding.

Captain Olivier Elima.

FOUR TO WATCH

Billy Slater, Australia

The game has never witnessed a more exciting attacking full-back from broken play. He is also among the bravest of defenders, but is also an inveterate risk-taker and sometimes – as in last year's World Cup final defeat by New Zealand – it can backfire on him.

Thomas Bosc, France

Oneof the most creative and versatile players in Super League. He can do a fine jobanywhere in the backs, but Bobbie Goulding will use him at stand-off where his choiceof options on the last tackle near the opposition line can pose insoluble problems forany defence. Also a top-notch goal-kicker into the bargain.

Greg Eastwood, New Zealand

Was supposed to be at Leeds this season and Rhinos' fans can see first-hand what they have been missing. Eastwood is an unlikely looking modern forward but has far more speed and agility than you see on the surface. He has the ability to come off the bench and make the sort of instant impact that coaches love.

Sam Tomkins, England

Tony Smith's side have three glittering half-back prospects emerging alongside each other. The Wigan stand-off has been left out of the first match but is the one they might ultimately get the best value from with his knack of scoring tries out of nothing. He has plenty to learn but this might be a case for learning on the job.

Match schedule

Round robin matches:

Tonight: England v France

Tomorrow: NZealand v Australia

31 Oct: Eng v Aus, France v NZ

7 Nov: Eng v NZ, France v Aus

Final: 11 November, Elland Road

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