History in hands of England's young half-backs

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The Independent Online

Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond first played against each other in the under-10s. Tonight they will join forces to try to do the biggest job in rugby league. Neither of the half-backs, nor any of their team-mates, was born the last time a British side got the better of Australia in a series or tournament – the 1972 World Cup.

The two young men entrusted with rewriting history tonight have been a sharp blast of fresh air these last few months, for their respective clubs and now for their country.

But if the two 20-year-olds are new to a wider audience they are by no means unfamiliar with each other.

"We've played against each other since the under-10s," says Tomkins, the older by four months. "There was one final in the under-15s, when he was playing for Oldham St Annes and I was with Wigan St Pats. It went to golden point and he won it with a lucky drop goal."

The two then played together for Lancashire and England at under-18 level. Since then, their progress has followed parallel lines as they became professionals – Tomkins at Wigan and Eastmond at St Helens.

"I've always kept an eye on him," says Eastmond. "And we've always got on well."

That harmony has been tested during the Four Nations when they roomed together.

"We spend quite a bit of time talking about the game and situations that could arise," says Eastmond, the self-confessed messy one of the pair. "I just spend my time following him around, picking up his dirty socks," is Tomkins' take on the relationship.

It is the relationship on the field that will be relevant at Elland Road tonight, with Tomkins attacking down the left, Eastmond on the right, but coming together to capitalise on broken play.

Their coach, Tony Smith, admits that he did not start the tournament with any intention of using two such inexperienced players as his half-back pairing against Australia.

Danny McGuire and Richie Myler began as his preferred combination, but form and fortune have a way of making your mind up for you. He throws them in tonight, fully aware that Australia will exploit any frailties.

Their scrum-half, Johnathan Thurston, has re-named Eastmond as "Kyle Who?" and their most damaging running forward, Anthony Watmough, has warned that he and his team-mates will aim to put extra pressure on such a youthful partnership.

The Australian captain, Darren Lockyer, has been more diplomatic, but the very presence of his name on the team-sheet is a sobering reminder of the level to which the two young Englishmen must aspire tonight.

Their task is formidable but not hopeless. They are playing behind a fierce and accomplished pack and New Zealand have shown twice in recent years that it is possible to catch Australia on an off-day in a final.

On the other hand, the near-perfect half of rugby Australia produced when the two countries last met in a final five years ago, or their first 40 minutes against England in this tournament, show what can happen if you let them get away from you.

England S Briscoe (Hull KR); P Fox (Hull KR), C Bridge (Warrington), M Shenton (Castleford), R Hall (Leeds); S Tomkins (Wigan), K Eastmond (St Helens); A Morley (Warrington), K Sinfield (Leeds), J Graham (St Helens), J Peacock (Leeds, capt), G Ellis (Wests Tigers), S Burgess (Bradford). Substitutes: J Roby (St Helens), E Crabtree (Huddersfield), B Westwood (Warrington), J Wilkin (St Helens).

Australia B Slater (Melbourne); J Hayne (Parramatta), G Inglis (Melbourne), J Hodges (Brisbane), B Morris (St George Illawarra); D Lockyer (Brisbane, capt), J Thurston (North Queensland); P Civoniceva (Penrith), C Smith (Melbourne), B Hannant (Canterbury), L Lewis (Penrith), P Gallen (Cronulla), N Hindmarsh (Parramatta). Substitutes: D Shillington (Canberra), S Thaiday (Brisbane), A Watmough (Manly), K Gidley (Newcastle), M Jennings (Penrith), B White (Melbourne).

Referee: L Williamson (New Zealand).

* The Bradford and former Great Britain scrum-half, Paul Deacon, is set for a shock move to his hometown club, Wigan, while the Catalan Dragons have recruited the New Zealand centre, Setaimata Sa.

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