England leagues below peerless Kangaroos

After defending England from criticism by the Australian media in the run-up to the World Cup clash with the Kangaroos, it is time to eat humble pie.

Sunday's 52-4 mauling at Melbourne's Telstra Dome was as shocking as it was appalling, with only hooker James Roby emerging from the shambles with his reputation intact.

It was like Groundhog Day, as memories of Great Britain's 64-10 humiliation in Sydney six years ago and England's 49-6 thrashing by New Zealand in the 2000 World Cup semi-final came flooding back with every incision from the Kangaroos' brilliant backs that cut deep into the Poms' pride.

Just when you think it is safe to feel confident in Britain's ability to compete with Australia, they provide a sharp and painful reminder that the gap between the two countries is probably as big as ever.

As England were put mercilessly to the sword by the skilful Aussies, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for the supporters who had made the 12,000-mile trek down under in optimistic mood to follow their team.

Estimates of the English following ranged from 4,000 to 5,000 but it was difficult to gauge an accurate figure because their team's dismal performance stunned them into silence.

And it was impossible not to think of the 1,000 or more fans back home watching the match on television as they prepared to pack their bags to join the tournament for the business end.

However, unlike that dark day at the Sydney Football Stadium in 2002 or England's final match of the last World Cup in Bolton, Tony Smith's men live to fight another day.

It would be no surprise if England once more defied predictions by seeing off New Zealand to earn a re-match with Australia in the Brisbane final on November 22 but Smith must ring the changes for Saturday's final group game.

Paul Wellens, Leon Pryce, Gareth Ellis, Kevin Sinfield, Martin Gleeson, Maurie Fa'asavalu and Jon Wilkin have all earned their right to perform on the world stage but on Sunday were made to look second rate.

Smith's options are limited but honest, hard-working forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Rob Purdham, at the very least, deserve run-outs in Saturday's match against the Kiwis, which will be a dress rehearsal for the first semi-final.

It might also be worth taking a punt on hooker Mickey Higham, with the versatile Roby displaying his talents in other areas, while utility back Paul Sykes could surely do no worse than last Sunday's performers.

England's record World Cup defeat, which followed Australia's hammering of New Zealand, clearly damaged the credibility of the tournament but that is not to say it should be dismissed as an irrelevance.

Away from the 'super pool', crowds from Canberra to the Gold Coast have enjoyed some spectacular rugby league from the competition's supposed minnows.

Boosted by the presence of a host of stars from Super League and Australia's National Rugby League, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Ireland have provided some thrilling fare which has gone a long way towards justifying the controversial and contrived fixture format.

Only the matches involving Australia have so far failed to live up to expectations and the tournament is currently enjoying a healthy average attendance of just over 16,000 which should ensure a decent profit, compared to a £700,000 loss in 2000.

Of longer-term significance, the game in Fiji and Samoa, in particular, will have gained a priceless boost from the performances of their national teams with the promise of more excitement to come.