Lockyer's brilliance leaves Great Britain clutching at straws
Great Britain 4 - Australia 44
Monday 29 November 2004
Once again, at the centre of the big stage, British rugby league fluffed its lines. Everything was set up: an expectant full house, a high media profile, a win over Australia last time out, even the England rugby union side losing to the Wallabies earlier in the day.
It all went horribly wrong from the moment that Darren Lockyer was declared fit. The Australian stand-off and captain had struggled all season with a rib injury and Great Britain hoped to test him out and put him under pressure.
Here on Saturday, he could have carried a tray of drinks around the field without spilling them, so complete were his poise and control. Australia scored six first-half tries and he was involved in all of them. During that first 40 minutes, they played as well as any Australian side in the 32 years that they have dominated international competition. Lockyer was the key, but everyone clicked around him.
"Sometimes you just have to hold up your hands and acknowledge brilliance," said the British captain, Andy Farrell. As he would have to admit, however, his side hardly helped its own cause. "We saved our worst performance until last," he added.
They certainly did. Having left Danny McGuire out of the starting line-up, they seemed to want to win the game in the first five minutes. The result was a general untidiness - dropped balls, soft penalties - that they never shook off.
Then there was their kicking game. Farrell believes that the problem lay not with the kicking as such, but with creating the platform from which to kick. The result is much the same - a series of balls descending into the welcoming arms of Anthony Minichiello. His positioning is truly exceptional, but the impression on Saturday was that if Wayne Bennett had given him a break on the bench, Britain's kickers would have found him there.
When a kick finally avoided him, the supporters who had come to see history made broke into ironic applause. At half-time, they booed their team off the field.
Britain's coach, Brian Noble, refused to condemn them for that. "They thought the dawn was coming and it wasn't," he said. "But it will come. We will look back on this tournament and be proud of some things we did. We had a bad 40 minutes, but unfortunately it was at the worst time."
It would be too easy now to lose sight of how positive the Tri-Nations has been, for Great Britain and for the international game as a whole. Britain played some invigorating rugby in the earlier rounds, uncovered a high-quality right-wing pairing in Brian Carney and Martin Gleeson, and have young players like McGuire, Sean O'Loughlin and Ryan Bailey who will be better the next time the tournament is played.
That, after the overwhelming success of the concept at the turnstiles, should be next year, even if that means reorganising the competition to take the Australians away from home for a shorter period. "The players are keen for the concept to continue, maybe with a bit better balance," said Bennett, the Australia coach and architect of the tournament.
Great Britain might have fallen down on the job in the final - Adrian Morley went so far as to make a public apology to the disgruntled fans - but that does not mean that they should be denied the chance to try again next year.
They know now, if they did not before, that it will take something special to beat an Australian side that can be relied upon to rise to the occasion.
Bennett has taken plenty of criticism on this trip for his team selection. On Saturday night, he could just smile thinly and say: "We were pretty sensational, I suppose." Noble and his men will vouch for that.
GREAT BRITAIN: Wellens (St Helens); Carney (Wigan), Gleeson (Warrington), Senior (Leeds), Reardon (Bradford); Harris (Bradford), Long (St Helens); Fielden (Bradford), Newton (Wigan), Morley (Sidney), Peacock (Bradford), Farrell (Wigan), Sculthorpe (St Helens). Substitutes: McGuire (Leeds), Johnson (Bradford), Bailey (Leeds), O'Loughlin (Wigan).
AUSTRALIA: Minichiello (Sidney); Sing (North Queensland), Berriegan (Brisbane), Tonga (Canterbury), Rooney (Henry); Lockyer (Brisbane), Kimmorley (Cronulla); Webcke (Brisbane), Buderus (Newcastle), Cibvoniceva (Brisbane), Brian (Canterbury), Hindmarsh (Parramatta) Carroll (Brisbane). Substitutes: Wing (Sidney), O'Meley (Canterbury), Fitzgibbon (Sidney), Mason (Canterbury).
Referee: R Smith (Great Britain).
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