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Rugby League

Steve Deane: Spare a few tears for those embattled England devotees

Poor old Eddie Hemmings, the long-suffering English league commentator. Saturday's Four Nations final defeat by Australia was almost more than he could take.

As the Kangaroos finally subdued the brave but overmatched English to extend Britain's barren streak to 37 years, you sensed Hemmings was close to unplugging his mike, kicking over his chair and heading off in search of a nice quiet corner in which to have a nervous breakdown.

Former GB and Wigan winger Brian Carney's cheerful suggestion that there was little to be done in the last 15 minutes other that sit back and "enjoy" the Kangaroos' brilliance was just too much for Hemmings.

"I'm just sick of it," said Hemmings as he endured a serious Groundhog Day/2-year-old's tantrum moment.

"This happens year after year and I'm sick of it," he blubbed.

Although understandable, Hemmings' tanty lacked a bit of perspective.

Australia's pre-eminence is not what it once was.

This year was essentially a development year for both the English and the Kiwis, and both did some serious developing.

Exciting young English and Kiwi players came of age in the Four Nations, while many of the Australians simply aged.

One of the all-time greats, Darren Lockyer, is either nearing the end or has already reached it. The same is probably true of old stagers Nathan Hindmarsh and Petero Civoniceva, who held together a decidedly average pack.

Australia's brilliant outside back division and appalling overabundance of superstar fullbacks remains a source of great strength, but elsewhere there are growing pains to come.

By blooding promising young halfbacks Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins, England have taken a major step forward. And in Souths-bound forward Sam Burgess - who was likely to have pipped Greg Inglis for player of the tournament had England won yesterday - they have a world-class pack leader who should be around for the next decade.

So chin up, Eddie. It's not all that bad.

As for the Kiwis, many of the same positives apply.

It is hard, though, not to think the game in this country missed a trick or two following last year's World Cup victory and a so-far encouraging NZRL restructure after the Sparc review.

It is a shame, although perhaps an unavoidable one, that the Kiwis played just once on home soil in a year when their world champion status should have been a highly marketable commodity.

It was also a shame that injuries and club commitments robbed them of the chance to put out a stronger side in the Four Nations.

But the biggest shame was the giant leap backwards taken by the Warriors.

The sellout home matches at the start of the season were proof of the huge groundswell of support that exists for the sport in Auckland.

But that support is still fickle, with the crowds tailing off as soon as it became obvious the team would not live up to pre-season expectations.

A decent Warriors run to the finals at a time when union is undergoing a severe identity crisis might just have shifted league into the mainstream for good. Early season viewership figures suggested the Warriors could eclipse the Blues as Auckland's most-watched rugby side.

Instead the revolution stalled, and next year already looms large.

League has always been an easy whipping boy, and if the Warriors flop again the sport will take its licks. But the whips will be wielded by worried union devotees who know the league wolf is still very much at the door.

Sourced from: The New Zealand Herald