England’s hunt for a breakthrough rugby league world crown goes on after heartbreakingly falling 6-0 short to Australia in the World Cup final in Brisbane.
England had not reached a decider since 1995 and despite losing captain Sean O’Loughlin and hooker Josh Hodgson to injury before kick-off, there were hopes that an unlikely history-making upset could be sprung. And virtually for the whole match at Suncorp Stadium against the best team in the world they were in the contest up to their eyeballs.
But much like the first Ashes Test down the road at the Gabba a week before, victory eventually belonged to the Antipodeans. Unbeaten in two and half years and the reigning world champions, the evening went to plan for the Kangaroos in a grinding, low-scoring affair.
England threw everything and the kitchen sink at the hosts, with a performance marked by unbelievable defence and determination, but ultimately one try to Boyd Cordner in the first half proved their undoing. It was a bitter pill for stand-in skipper Sam Burgess and his courageous men to swallow.
England coach Wayne Bennett was proud of his side and the massive effort they gave.
“A lot times they were exhausted but they still found something, another effort on effort,” he said.
“It was pretty good stuff. They probably had a little bit better ball control than we did. We had to do a bit more defending. [But] the Kangaroos were wonderful. It’s a pity there has to be a loser on a night like this. Someone’s got to win, someone’s got to lose.”
Bennett would not be drawn on his future with England now that the World Cup is finished and his contract has ended.
“I’m not talking about it tonight,” the 67-year-old said.
“I’m not in a good state to talk about those things.”
Australia coach Mal Meninga praised England and said they have made “huge strides” in the international arena.
“It was a terrific game of footy. You don’t get many 6-0 games in rugby league anymore,” he said.
“I’m just really proud of them. We knew it was going to be hard game. I expected it to be hard. I thought our preparation through the week was really, really good.
We knew what we needed to go. It was a special night for both side and a special night for rugby league.”
After a bustling opening stanza marked by an all-in push and shove and some courageous last-ditch England tackling, Australia took first blood. The Kangaroos were camped on England’s line constantly for five minutes and eventually Cordner bulldozed his way over after a Michael Morgan pass.
Australia had more chances, Cameron Smith’s darting runs from dummy half and probing passes continued, but England’s brave defence held. It was backs-to-the-wall, gritty stuff but the theme was clear – they will not get past. A series of penatlies sparked the visitors into life and they staged two promising attacks.
First Ryan Hall was forced into touch on the left, then Jermaine McGillvary broke free on the other wing. But the ball came loose on McGillvary’s carry and Australia escaped. England had another excellent opportunity after Alex Walmsley earned a penalty. But John Bateman’s loose carry coughed up the ball and the Kangaroos were again let off the hook.
In a game of such close margins, Australia just had their noses crucially poked in front 6-0 at half-time. However, England could take heart from the fact that despite their superior field position and possession, the Kangaroos had only breached their try-line once.
Australia had completed 92% of their sets, England only 71%, but the scoreline didn’t reflect that. The pressure on England’s resolve grew in the second half. A knock on from Widdop put them on high alert but the Kangaroos couldn’t take advantage.
In the 47th minute Morgan got over the line, after stepping two defenders. But the try was correctly ruled out by the video referee for an obstruction in the build-up. Again England would not be ruled out of the fight.
Australia had the match between their teeth but could not deliver a knockout blow. Like a heavyweight stalking his foe around the ring, this contest was going to the 12th round.
As time clicked away the tension and nerves grew. Every half-chance and half-break drew the crowd to the feet. The Kangaroos went from hunter to prey as they were forced to get through a mountain of tackling. England probed and pushed, nearly finding the vital try they needed, but ultimately an ounce luck was not on their side.
As full-time hit 26 bodies collapsed on to the turf. Australia was victorious but England had earned respect from the rugby league world. Losers yes, but valiant and courageous to a man. It was a gutsy performance that will live long in the memory. If that match can’t kick-start international rugby league nothing will.
Australia: Slater; Gagai, Chambers, Dugan, Holmes; Morgan, Cronk; Woods, Smith, Klemmer, Cordner, Gillett, McGuire
Replacements: W. Graham, McLean, Campbell-Gillard, Frizell
England: Widdop; McGillvary, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Brown, Gale; Hill, Roby, J. Graham, Currie, Whitehead, S. Burgess
Replacements: Walmsley, T. Burgess, Heighington, Lomax
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