England effectively ended their Four Nations challenge with an error-strewn performance in an undistinguished game here yesterday. Australia did not even have to play particularly well to win by 20 clear points and book their place in the final in two weeks; they simply had to accept most of the invitations offered.
England, admittedly, played with more energy than they had done in that insipid first half against New Zealand last week. Their forwards were at least the match of the Kangaroos, with Sam Burgess and the captain, James Graham, particularly strong at prop. When they enjoyed some possession they often looked capable of breaking down an Australian defence that was a long way from its best.
But glaring individual errors undid them and again underlined the deficiencies in the British game – notably, that there are just not enough players whose skills stand up to examination under pressure at the highest level.
Two early penalties, the second for Ryan Atkins saving his line by tackling his man without the ball, set the scene for Australia's opening try, scored by Luke Lewis running off the shoulder of Cooper Cronk. It was encouraging, though, that England hit straight back.
Sam Thaiday was penalised for holding down Darrell Goulding and the field position was exploited by James Roby's excellent crisp pass from dummy-half to send Burgess, the NRL's favourite Pom, through a gap to touch down. "I thought we started off pretty strongly, but we made too many mistakes after that," Burgess said.
England even led for a short while, after Ben Westwood slotted over a penalty to go with his conversion, but it was all downhill from there.
Goulding lost the ball returning a kick and Australia got the first of the debatable decisions that went in their favour. Darren Lockyer's kick seemed to have shaved Cronk's hand and gone forward before Lewis touched down, but the Australian video referee, Steven Clark, ruled a try. "We could all see it on the field, so I don't know how he couldn't," was Burgess's assessment.
Roby was the next to surrender possession, an error compounded when Tom Briscoe misjudged Lockyer's kick to the wing and Billy Slater pounced.
The game was galloping away from England now, all the more so when Atkins lost the ball and Brent Tate was ruled to have scored in the corner, despite a dubious-looking grounding. "We got some tough calls, but I don't think they changed the result," Burgess said. "You have to rise above them."
Lewis could have had his hat-trick, but unselfishly passed to Willie Tonga for the fifth Australian try, to emphasise the ease with which they were scoring and their half-time superiority.
With the rain lashing down on the half-empty AAMI Park stadium, the game deteriorated badly in a technical sense in the second half, with both coaches blaming the Australian referee for allowing the play-the-ball to be slowed down by lying-on in the tackle.
England were at least first on the scoreboard after the break, thanks to Luke Robinson's electric burst from dummy-half. "It was nice to score my first try for my country, but I wish the circumstances could have been a bit different, so I could have celebrated it a bit more," said Robinson, who like his half-back partner, Sean O'Loughlin, and Sam Tomkins, switched to full-back, struggled to get into the match as an attacking force.
The whole of the threequarter line simply looked not good enough to compete at this level, although the England coach, Steve McNamara, pointed to the average age of the squad at 24 and insisted: "We were very dominant physically and our forwards battered them at various stages of the game."
There was a question mark about the final Aussie try, Lewis's pass to Slater looking clearly forward before Lote Tuqiri got the touchdown. For some unenterprising reason, Australia chose to kick for goal when they got a penalty after that, giving Cameron Smith his fifth success.
Australia, without greatly impressing their coach, Tim Sheens, won with plenty to spare. "It's difficult for England out here with nothing like their best side," he said. "They need to have their best squad available."
Sheens warned that there would be changes for next week's dress rehearsal for the final against New Zealand, because too many of his players had underperformed for his liking.
"England made a couple of fundamentals and gave us field position," he said. "And when you do that, we generally hurt you.
"But I'm concerned by the way they walked through us in the middle. New Zealand would be licking their lips at that.
"There will be some changes, because some players didn't play well enough," Sheens added.
That puts England's limitations into unflattering perspective. They must now find the enthusiasm to prepare for the Battle of the Also-Rans, against Papua New Guinea in Auckland on Saturday.
Australia Slater; Morris, Tate, Tonga, Tuqiri; Lockyer, Cronk; Miles, Smith, Civoniceva, Lewis, Thaiday, Gallen. Substitutes used Shillington, Learoyd-Lahrs, Watmough, Gidley.
England S Tomkins; Goulding, Cudjoe, Atkins, Briscoe; O'Loughlin, Robinson; Burgess, Roby, Graham, Ellis, J Tomkins, Westwood. Substitutes used Crabtree, Fielden, Lunt, Harrison.
Referee T Archer (Australia).
* New Zealand made sure of a place in the Four Nations final with a 76-12 victory over Papua New Guinea in Rotorua on Saturday. Junior Sa'u and Sam Perrett, the replacement for the injured Manu Vatuvei, both scored hat-tricks, while Sheffield's Menzie Yere scored one of PNG's two tries.