England 20 – 36 Australia
Rugby League Four Nations
By Nick Norton
England may not have been able to claim victory on a day that saw Wembley host its first international rugby league fixtures in 14 years, but they can be mighty proud of their efforts against, it could be argued, 14 men.
While few would be as vociferous in arguing Australia were not marginally the better side, the officiating of referee Henry Peranara undoubtedly turned a fine Four Nations tie that could have gone either way into one that was a lot more comfortable for the men in green and gold.
It had all started so brightly for England, who were obviously buoyed by the sense of occasion. After an attritional first ten minutes they finally went wide, a miss pass from Kevin Sinfield finding his Leeds team-mate Ryan Hall, who went in at the corner.
The replays showed just how sensational a touchdown this was, with Hall reaching back across his body to ground the ball milliseconds before striking the corner flag. And the try came with a major bonus, as Australian full-back and International Player of the Year Billy Slater suffered what was later diagnosed as a broken collerbone in the process of pushing Hall out of play.
However, Australia simply do not do panic or capitulation, and within five minutes they were ahead. Darius Boyd followed Sinfield’s lead and threw a miss pass of his own to find Luke Lewis, who did not need to be quite as agile as Ryan Hall as he ran in for the try.
Ironically, it was a Kiwi who would have the next big impact on the game. New Zealand-born Rangi Chase, who qualifies to play for England on residency grounds, decided to aim a kick for touch from a 20-metre restart, only to see the ball fall well short and into Australia’s hands.
Four plays later he could only stand and watch as Tony Williams bulldozed through Chris Heighington’s attempted tackle to score. Johnathan Thurston, whose goal-kicking metronome was set to 100 per cent all evening, duly converted to give Australia an eight point lead.
The game, and England, proceeded to go flat, but with half-time approaching Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins, who had shown flashes of the brilliance that has earned his reputation as one of the most exciting players in the game, produced a touch of magic to revive English fortunes. Breaking through the Australian line after fine work from replacement Jon Wilkin, Tomkins released centre Jack Reed with a sublime backhand pass. Reed straightened up to give Hall room to run the ball in on the right, but the big wing still had to put in a rapid burst of pace and carry the weight of tackler Boyd to claim a superb second try.
Hope that this momentum could continue into the second half swiftly received a rude awakening soon after the restart, as a deft Thurston pass drew Reed out of the line and created a gaping hole for Greg Inglis. Although Inglis’s timing had been questioned by Australia coach Tim Sheens after a spell out with injury, he took it on the button and put his side further ahead.
It was now that the game reached its most crucial phase, with two very questionable decisions from Peranara sapping a still determined England. First the hulking Williams decided that it was necessary to employ a clothesline to bring down Ben Westwood, and swung his arm straight into the England forward’s face for all to see. For all to see except, that is, Peranara, who decided that the offence did not even warrant a sin-binning, and instead placed the incident on report.
Stung by the injustice, England drove all the way to the Australian try line, which was breached by the strength of winger Lee Briscoe, who kept his bodyweight supported by a strong arm to reach out and make the touchdown. But despite being stood just metres away, the referee saw what nobody else – including the television cameras – saw and judged that it had been a double movement, striking off the try.
With every decision now going against England, Australia added injury to insult as a deceptively soft pass from Cooper Cronk found Paul Gallen cutting a fine line through the English defence for the score.
Australia’s 16-point advantage and persistently unpunished delaying tactics at the ruck looked to have secured them the test, when out of the blue a high Sinfield kick was collected by Reed, who then had only yards to run in unchallenged.
It was to prove a false dawn. With ten minutes to go a converted try would have put England within four points, but it was Boyd who powered his way over to effectively secure Australia’s victory. Even when another great Tomkins offload put Heighington in to reduce the deficit late on, it was Australia’s Chris Lawrence who got the game’s final try right at the death.
England captain Jamie Peacock was at his diplomatic best afterwards when stating that “a couple of things” had not gone his side’s way. He was, however, absolutely justified in his belief that the final scoreline was not a reflection of how well England had battled during the game – a point of view that was shared by Sheens.
There was definitely enough here to give England hope for a rematch in the Four Nations decider at Elland Road in a fortnight’s time. All that stands between them is the not inconsiderable force of a Kiwi side determined to repeat their shock defeat of the Australians in the last World Cup and Four Nations finals.
Should that hurdle be negotiated, the men in white will take great heart that without the adjudication of another wayward referee, they have every chance of pulling off a shock result of their own.