SOMEWHERE along the line, in the quest to match Australia, the element of surprise has gone missing. Great Britain lost the World Cup final at Wembley not because they have anything to fear these days from the power and organisation of the Australians. Britain worked just as hard and efficiently as the opposition in those areas; it was impossible to fault them for effort or enthusiasm. But the spark, which enabled far worse British sides to score spectacular tries against better Australian teams than this one, has been lost.
In Martin Offiah and Alan Hunte, Great Britain had wingers who could have won them the game given any sort of opportunity to run at the defence. Instead, Hunte's second international appearance will be remembered for the fumble in his own 25 that gave Australia the ball and brought about the only try.
Offiah was most noticeable when stalking off in his customary post-defeat sulk, long before the rest of his team-mates, and he was roundly booed by the crowd around the tunnel. Neither he nor Hunte had received a pass worthy of the name.
No doubt the Great Britain coach, Malcolm Reilly, was justified in pointing to the quality of the Australian defence as a major inhibiting factor. They adopted an attitude which had a familiar ring to it: if they saw anything with British Coal on it, they closed it down.
But there was still a depressing lack of variety in the British approach. A rigid policy of five drives and a huge boot downfield was not stimulating to watch and will have won few converts to the code from among the quarter of the crowd who bought their tickets in London.
All would have been forgiven, of course, if it had worked for the full 80 minutes and brought victory. Great Britain won half a match with those methods by leading 6-4 at half-time. It was expecting too much of their own resilience to deny Australia a try throughout the whole game.
The loss of Joe Lydon and Gary Connolly for the second half affected Great Britain badly, as both had stood out during the first, Lydon for his positional sense and deep kicking, Connolly for tackling well above his weight.
The loss of Shaun Edwards - 10 minutes in the sin bin - was an extra self-inflicted handicap that Britain hardly needed. Edwards, who has a real attitude problem over the refereeing of Dennis Hale, felt predictably hard done to by his verdict on a challenge on Steve Renouf. But it was not possible to argue a pattern of victimisation from a referee who has upset Great Britain in the past; he was leniency itself when Martin Dermott leapt high to apply a forearm to Brad Fittler's cheekbone in the first half.
Fittler survived to be one of the leading influences behind Australia's victory. Tim Brasher recovered from an early mistake that gave Great Britain a 2-0 lead to play just as confidently as the other debutant, Renouf. If Mal Meninga and Garry Schofield cancelled each other out, that was more damaging to Britain than to Australia.
Throughout the team, Australia showed the greater willingness to keep the ball moving. In flat contradiction to the popular perception of Australian rugby league, their big men driving the ball in were always looking to keep it alive.
For that difference in philosophy, they deserved to make the breakthrough. Hunte was mortified afterwards by his role in it, dropping the ball on the first tackle after he had come in to help his hard-pressed forwards.
John Devereux will be equally haunted by the way he allowed the speedy Renouf to get on the wrong side of him to take a fast, flat pass from the Australian substitute, Kevin Walters.
If Connolly had still been on the field, his first-half performance suggested that he might have made the tackle. If Meninga had missed the conversion from the touchline, as he was well capable of doing, a kickable penalty in the dying minutes would have given Great Britain extra time.
If Brasher had not managed to get himself between the ball and the ground when Alan Tait took one of Deryck Fox's high kicks behind the try line Britain could still have won, as they might have done if Schofield had taken an intercept from Meninga or Dermott's pass to Edwards had not gone to ground.
But that was the sum total of the chances and half-chances Britain created. It was not enough and Australia remain worthy world champions.
Great Britain: Penalties Fox 3. Australia: Try Renouf; Penalties Meninga 2; Conversion Meninga.
GREAT BRITAIN: Lydon (Wigan); Hunte, Connolly (both St Helens), Schofield (Leeds, capt), Offiah; Edwards (both Wigan), Fox (Bradford Northern); Ward (St Helens), Dermott, Platt, Betts, Clarke (all Wigan), Hanley (Leeds). Substitutes: Devereux (Widnes) for Connolly, 40; Skerrett (Wigan) for Ward, 53; Tait (Leeds) for Lydon, 47; Eyres (Widnes) for Hanley, 75. Coach: M Reilly.
AUSTRALIA: Brasher (Balmain); Carne, Renouf (Brisbane), Meninga (Canberra, capt), Hancock (Brisbane); Fittler (Penrith), Langer; Lazarus (Brisbane), S Walters (Canberra), Sargent (Newcastle), Sironen (Balmain), Lindner (Wests), Clyde (Canberra). Substitutes: Cartwright (Penrith) for Sargent, 63; Gillespie (Wests) for Sironen, 40; K Walters (Brisbane) for Clyde, 44. Coach: B Fulton.
Referee: D Hale (New Zealand).
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content