England's new belief to be tested by world's best

Australia are formidable opposition in the Four Nations final but hosts have reason to hope

England go into this evening's Four Nations final at Elland Road full of new hope and optimism, but with most of the old, familiar barriers still in their way.

After last year's flop in the southern hemisphere, there have been plenty of good signs in this tournament. A happy, unified, fully-fit squad has been on a steady arc of improvement.

As we have come to expect, the pack has been a match for anyone. Less predictably, there has been flair and scoring power in the backs. None of these things guarantees a result in front of a capacity crowd tonight, but taken together they certainly give England a chance.

And yet we have – literally – been here before and for almost 40 years Australia have always come up with the right answers when it counts.

Long and bitter experience says that they will do the same today. After all, they still have the built-in advantage of playing every week in the NRL, at a higher level than in Super League. They still have the unbeatable proving ground that is State of Origin.

Even without the acknowledged best player in the world, Billy Slater, they also have the individuals to punish even the most marginal of shortcomings. Two others in that same bracket, Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston, have been feeling their way back after injury, but look ominously ready to fire on all cylinders.

The Kangaroo pack is formidably mobile and superbly marshalled by another "best in the world" candidate in Cameron Smith. Most of all, they have, for one last time, that scourge of the Poms, Darren Lockyer. This will be his 59th and final Test; memory plays tricks, but he seems to have devoted at least 50 of the previous ones to snatching late victories from British opponents.

If there is an Australian scriptwriter on duty tonight, Lockyer is horribly liable to do the same again. There has probably never been a player you would less like to see with the ball in his hands in the dying minutes of a tight Test match.

Not that England will be going in with any feelings of inferiority or inevitability. For one thing, they now have a rich leavening of NRL experience in their own squad.

Adrian Morley and the fit-again Gareth Ellis have cut the mustard in Australia, Jack Reed and Rangi Chase have justified what could have been controversial selections, while Gareth Widdop, after a full season at stand-off for Melbourne, will surely see more action than his few minutes at Wembley.

It was the quality of that performance two weeks ago, even though it ended in defeat to Australia, that has fed the burgeoning English self-confidence. It was only fixable individual errors that cost them that match – and they showed against the Kiwis that they could put that right.

With the pace and enterprise of their back three, they can score from anywhere on a pitch that neither side was allowed to train on yesterday. That long-range strike-power could be crucial if, as is more than likely, they spend a good slice of the game pinned in their own territory.

Before this tournament, long-suffering England fans would have settled for a place in the final and an honourable defeat. They are now allowing themselves to dream of something more – and this time they might not be woken with a nasty jolt.


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