There was to be no historic triumph over Australia for England, but this was a home performance, and a contest, that none who witnessed it could possibly criticise. It took some mesmerising handling and kicking skills on a filthy Yorkshire evening to beat them, with the North Queensland Cowboys scrum-half Johnathan Thurston absolutely outstanding, and even in defeat the 17 players wearing white and red ensured that British rugby league has regained much of the respect that was sacrificed in last autumn’s World Cup disaster.
Australia benefited from one hugely controversial try awarded to Greg Inglis by the video referee midway through the first half, but a truly remarkable piece of skill by Billy Slater to set up Cameron Smith for the clincher 13 minutes from the end removed any doubt that the Kangaroos were worthy winners.
Slater then scored a second try himself after a classy piece of play by his captain Darren Lockyer and completed his hat-trick before Lockyer celebrated becoming the first Australia player to make 50 appearances for his country by lifting the Gillette Four Nations trophy. But the enthusiasm with which the Kangaroos celebrated underlined the scale of the challenge that England had provided.
Sam Burgess set the tone with a stunning individual try in the 10th minute, taking an inside pass from Kevin Sinfield, left one forward floundering with a sidestep and then used the supporting Kyle Eastmond as a foil to flummox Australia’s full-back Slater and charge between the posts.
Australia hit back ruthlessly, Thurston intercepting James Graham’s pass on his own 20 and setting in motion an 80-metre counter-attack which ended with Brett Morris crossing on the right. Thurston converted from wide out, but England responded brilliantly when the Hull KR wing Peter Fox soared above Jarryd Hayne to catch, and touch down, Eastmond’s precise cross-field chip.
Hayne combined with Thurston to set up Australia’s second try, but it came from the sort of decision that brings video refereeing into disrepute. Dozens of replays showed no clear evidence that Inglis had touched down Hayne’s kick. But Ian Smith, the British video official, awarded the try, to hoots of derision from the crowd. Again Thurston converted to put Australia ahead for the first time, and he doubled that lead with a penalty.
But England stunned Australia again with the pace at which they opened the second half. They simply tore into the Kangaroos, with the reintroduction of captain Jamie Peacock providing crucial momentum, and made the pressure pay when Burgess applied another explosive finish to a superb combination between Tomkins and Gareth Ellis. Sinfield’s simple conversion nudged them 16-14 ahead.
That drew an immediate response from the Aussies in this coruscating match, with a desperate tackle by Shaun Briscoe on Kurt Gidley proving to be of no avail as Slater nipped over from acting half on the next play.
Within five minutes they were in again as Thurston kicked delicately for Morris to collect and touch down.
Scores: 6-0 (Burgess try, Sinfield conv) 6-6 (Morris try, Thurston conv) 10-6 (Fox try) 10-12 (Inglis try, Thurston conv) 10-14 (Thurston pen) 16-14 (Burgess try, Sinfield conv), 16-18 (Slater try), 16-22 (Morris try), 16-28 (Smith try, Thurston conv), 16-34 (Slater try, Thurston conv), 16-40 (Hayne try, Thurston conv), 16-46 (Slater try, Thurston conv).
England: S Briscoe (Hull KR); Fox (Hull KR), Bridge (Warrington),
Shenton (Castleford), Hall (Leeds); Tomkins (Wigan), Eastmond (St Helens);
Morley (Warrington), Sinfield (Leeds), Graham (St Helens), Peacock (Leeds,
capt), Ellis (Wests Tigers), Burgess (Bradford). Interchange: Crabtree
(Huddersfield), Wilkin (St Helens), Westwood (Warrington), Roby (St Helens).
Australia: Slater (Melbourne); B Morris (St George Illawarra), Hodges (Brisbane), Inglis (Melbourne), Hayne (Parramatta); Lockyer (Brisbane, capt), Thurston (North Queensland); Hannant (Canterbury), Smith (Melbourne), Civoniceva (Penrith), Lewis (Penrith), Gallen (Cronulla), Hindmarsh (Parramatta). Interchange: Gidley (Newcastle), White (Melbourne), Watmough (Manly), Thaiday (Brisbane).
Referee: L Williamson (New Zealand)