England have their first win of the 2017 World Cup and put one foot in the quarter-finals with a hard-fought 29-10 victory over Lebanon in Sydney.
At a wet and dreary Sydney Football Stadium, England powered past the Cedars thanks to tries to Kallum Watkins, Jermaine McGillvary, Ryan Hall, Ben Currie and Tom Burgess.
After losing 18-4 to Australia in Melbourne in their World Cup opener, this was a must-win game for Wayne Bennett’s team.
England had a disrupted preparation with two late changes in the form of Stefan Ratchford replacing Jonny Lomax at fullback and George Williams taking James Roby’s spot on the bench.
But that didn’t stop them putting minnows Lebanon to the sword. Ranked 18th in the world and playing in just their second World Cup, as well as being made up of a mixture of part-timers and NRL players, the Middle Eastern nation was not expected to put up too much opposition against a fully professional England side stacked with Super League and NRL talent.
However, they stayed with them for large parts of the match, frustrating England with their passion and commitment. Eventually the class and experience of their British opponents told, but it took time initially for the tide to turn.
England coach Bennett was displeased with his side’s performance
“The first half was pretty good,” he said. “I was really pleased with our ball control. I thought we defended pretty well. Second half I thought we just lost our way, with the football particularly. We have to be better than that. These games are difficult because you’re expected to win them. For us part of our journey is to be more consistent and it’s not good enough.”
Lebanon coach Brad Fittler was happy with how his team responded after a difficult first half.
“The first half we lost control and we didn’t react to them very well,” he said. “But the second half was very impressive. We had a chat at half-time and they reacted pretty well.”
England opened the scoring after nine minutes when the ball was swung to the right to exploit an overlap and Watkins touched down.
But eight minutes later Lebanon drew level 6-6 thanks to a mistake from Gareth Widdop. The stand-off fumbled a Robbie Farah grubber kick and Lebanese loose forward Nick Kassis pounced on the ball to send the 10,237-strong pro-Cedars crowd into raptures.
After surviving another dangerous Farah kick, England responded again lethally on the right edge. Watkins fed McGillvary and the Huddersfield winger stepped inside to give them back the lead.
England switch tack and attacked to the left flank next, John Bateman putting Hall over for the Leeds flyer’s 33rd try in his 34th Test appearance. Hall appeared to lose the ball as he grounded it, but regardless the video referee awarded the try.
That made the score 16-6, took some of the sting out of the spirited Lebanese fans and gave England breathing space. They moved in for the kill and Josh Hodgson set up Currie for his first try for his country, taking it to 22-6 at the break.
A minute into the second half and tempers flared when Farah alleged that McGillvary had bitten him. The incident was put on report but no penalty was given.
England struggled to regain its rhythm and it took 15 minutes for them to strike again. The fifth try came through Tom Burgess spectacularly rampaging over from 40 metres out off James Graham’s pass.
Widdop converted to make it 28-6 and put the result beyond doubt. With Williams injected into the game, Widdop moved to fullback and Ratchford coming off, England’s attack had a new look.
As the second half opened up both sides struggled to take their chances. Lebanon didn’t roll over, forcing some drop-outs and building pressure. With five minutes left they got their reward when Jason Wehbe barged over in the corner for their second try.
England’s victory was assured but it was just desserts for the courageous Cedars. Three minutes from full-time McGillvary dived over but the try was chalked off because of a forward pass. In the final seconds Widdop nailed a drop-goal to close proceedings.
England meet France next Sunday in Perth where victory will ensure they finish second in Group A, behind Australia, and play their quarter-final in Melbourne.
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