England take right road but end in same old spot

England 8 Australia 30

Elland Road

The longest wait in world sport goes on after all England's promise evaporated when Australia turned up the heat in the Four Nations final.

It is now 39 years since a British side took a series or a tournament from the men who set the green and gold- standard, 52 since they did so in this country. More immediately, they have not beaten Australia at all for six years. The reason was there for all to see at Elland Road: sheer quality.

Darren Lockyer ended his record-breaking career with a typically influential game. The final's scriptwriters even provided him with an improbable storyline for his exit – a last-minute try and a hilariously skewed conversion attempt.

He will probably turn up again one day, played by a different actor.

Lockyer was able to laugh at his miscue and then made a gracious speech from the centre of the pitch, thanking any England fans who were still in their seats. He made another in his last press conference and departed to an unprecedented round of applause. We love our torturers in this game.

"I don't know how I'm going to replace this guy," admitted the Australian coach, Tim Sheens. Actually, the answer was a couple of rooms away, still in the showers. Johnathan Thurston had what might be termed an interesting Test. In doubt for several days with a well-concealed thigh strain, he scored one try, set up two others, kicked five goals and conceded a penalty try with a high tackle. The one he scored was an illustration of his depth of involvement, as he handled the ball three times in the build-up.

After encouraging performances against Australia at Wembley and New Zealand at Hull, the sad truth is that Steve McNamara's side were well below par at Elland Road. The match fell into three parts: a one-sided first half-hour when England were unbelievably lucky only to concede one try; a period on either side of half-time when they had plenty of possession and position but did little with it; and a last 25 minutes in which Australia scored the points that reflected their superiority.

That left England a bitterly disappointed band, knowing that they had not done themselves justice. "Playing like we did and not giving the greatest account of ourselves is very disappointing," said Gareth Ellis, whose return from a back injury gave England, on paper, a thoroughly capable pack. "We feel like we've been here before."

In fairness, it was not in the forwards that things really went wrong; the problems were further back. The half-back combination of Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield, so effective against the Kiwis, was largely anonymous.

The wingers were prone to error and Sam Tomkins, who could play for the Barbarians at Twickenham this weekend, made a mess of a high kick, never got the ball in his hands often enough to trouble Australia with his dazzling running. There would surely have been a case for moving him to first receiver, just to get him into the game.

Like a number of his team-mates, he will be that much better equipped when England host the World Cup in 2013. "English rugby league is going in the right direction," Ellis said. "We have nothing to be embarrassed about. We can be pleased with a lot of what we've done this last month."

England: Try Hall; Goals Sinfield 2. Australia: Tries Thaiday, Yow Yeh, Thurston, Inglis, Lockyer; Goals Thurston 5.

England Tomkins; Hall, Reed, Yeaman, Briscoe; Sinfield, Chase; Graham, Roby, Peacock, Ellis, Wilkin, Westwood. Substitutes used Widdop, Carvell, Morley, Jones-Buchanan.

Australia Boyd; Uate, Inglis, Lawrence, Yow Yeh; Lockyer, Thurston; Shillington, Smith, Scott, Lewis, Thaiday, Gallen. Substitutes used Cronk, Watmough, Galloway, Williams.

Referee M Cecchin (Aus).

Four Nations: the players that caught the eye

BEST PLAYER: JOHNATHAN THURSTON

OK, he may not be able to spell his first name properly and he conceded a penalty try with a high tackle in the final, but he stood out in every game he played as the major influence on the Australian side. He has been Darren Lockyer's side-kick in the latter stages of the captain's career; now he will be calling the shots and he is admirably equipped to do so.

 

BEST NEWCOMER: JACK REED

The Keighley-born centre was the most worthwhile catch to be brought home from Steve McNamara's fishing trip for English-qualified players from the southern hemisphere. Still some rough edges, but a strong finisher, who has now scored three times as many tries for his country as Gary Connolly did in his entire Test career. (Unlikely RL Stats No 1) Even amid the disillusionment of the final, he made two try-saving tackles.

 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: BENJI MARSHALL

He showed a few flashes of his magic for New Zealand at Wembley, but nothing like enough to justify his pre-tournament status as the best player in the world. Young enough, though, to get his own back in the World Cup in two years' time.

 

PANTOMIME VILLAIN: ISSAC LUKE

No contest. The Kiwi hooker found new ways of attacking opponents (his leg-twist on Rangi Chase) as well as refining recent favourites (his cannonball tackle on David Shillington's knee). Throw in a general snideyness and he walks away with the award. Good player, though.

 

BEST TRY: RYAN HALL

You could say any from Hall, but his first at Wembley was something special. There wasn't room to squeeze in at the corner and a full-back of the calibre of Billy Slater was covering but somehow Hall managed to get in. Slater broke his collarbone trying to stop him. The Leeds winger has a rare blend of size and speed – and is not a bad saxophone player either.

 

MOST POIGNANT FAREWELL

A dead-heat between Lee Briers and Lockyer. Briers got in first with his lap of honour at Wrexham, marking his second international retirement. It came after a personal cameo that not only perplexed Australia but also begged the question of what, in a different life, he might have done for England or Great Britain. At least he will still be running around – well, walking – for Warrington next season, whereas we have seen Lockyer, that polite tormenter of British souls, for the last time. He even managed to bow out with a comedy moment, missing the simplest of conversions after his own final try. About time he did us a favour, but far too little, Darren, and far too late.

 

MOST SURREAL MOMENT

As members of the England squad were returning from a photo-shoot in Hyde Park, who should they meet but the Household Cavalry.

"Bloody hell," says one of riders, "that's Jamie Jones-Buchanan – he's my hero."

 

BEST QUOTE: LEE BRIERS

"I don't really care. I'll be watching it in a pub somewhere, with the sun on my back." Briers, asked to tip a winner in the final, reveals his plans for the off-season.

 

BEST MOVE: WEMBLEY

The decision to take the England v Australia round-robin game to Wembley. That week, the code enjoyed more national visibility than it has done for a long time.

 

SURPRISE PACKAGE: CRAIG KOPCZAK

Kopczak showed some potential for Bradford last season. For Wales, he was a man possessed, making surging forward breaks and knocking around illustrious opponents in the tackle. You hadn't really had a Four Nations if you didn't cop a whack from Kopczak.

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