England v Australia
Wembley Stadium
Sunday, 2.30am AEST

England’s aim of returning to the pinnacle of the international rugby league tree faces its biggest test this weekend when they host the world’s top side and traditional rivals Australia in front of a packed house at Wembley Stadium.

It’s been a while between drinks for the hosts – as Great Britain they last won a World Cup in 1972 and an Ashes series in 1970 – but they have made no secret that this current squad hopes to change that with the selection of Australian-born NRL stars Jack Reed and Chris Heighington notable inclusions. Certainly their presence against Wales last week added plenty of firepower to the English side, with both scoring tries in a 42-4 win.

Given Wales’ minnow status, it’s difficult to form an accurate judgment of how England will fare against much stronger opposition but at the very least they ticked all the right boxes in their Four Nations opener.

Canterbury-bound prop James Graham and former Rooster Adrian Morley were dominant up front, five-eighth Kevin Sinfield (four line-break assists) caused headaches for the defence and impressive young fullback Sam Tomkins finished with four tries and plenty of respect.

And although it took them a good 20 minutes to fully warm to the task, that’s often the case when a side has so much more to lose than to gain.

Still, Australia represents a very different proposition, with two dominant displays against New Zealand – particularly that 42-6 demolition in Newcastle – confirming their tournament 

favouritism. Their great advantage is the presence of their ‘big four’ with Billy Slater (crowned International Player of the Year overnight for a record second time), Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith running the show with their typical brilliance. Ironically, it has been Lockyer that has been particularly lethal in his farewell tour.

England will also have to face the Greg Inglis factor this week after he was cleared to return from knee and ankle injuries. One of the most destructive runners in the game, he replaces centre Willie Tonga who suffered rib and pectoral injuries in last week’s win over the Kiwis.

England are expected to name the same squad that defeated Wales last week, with Morley and Melbourne Storm star Gareth Widdop again likely to come off the bench.

More importantly, they clearly refuse to be intimidated by this Australian outfit with the rival coaches engaging in some good old-fashioned banter this week. English coach Steve McNamara was quick to label the Kangaroos ‘whingers’ following complaints by Australia’s Tim Sheens over the standard of referring against New Zealand last week, while England back-rower Gareth Ellis has since accused Australia of not showing the hosts enough respect.

Watch Out Kangaroos: Twenty-two-year-old fullback Sam Tomkins is a man that could cause Australia plenty of problems if they’re not on the ball – as he showed with his four-try effort against Wales last week. The Wigan youngster may not be the biggest in stature but his great strength is an ability to follow the football, with his support play a feature of England’s 42-4 win over the Welsh. His first try came as he chimed into the back line on the end of a second-man play, his second when he sliced through two defenders, his third backing up a Gareth Ellis bust and his fourth with a burst of speed out wide. 

Watch Out England: As if they didn’t boast enough weapons already, Australia unleashed another one last week with giant Manly star Tony Williams tormenting New Zealand in their clash at Warrington. Weighing in at a massive 118kg, Williams is a devastating ball-runner on the edges and his role in this Australian side became clear after coming off the bench against the Kiwis. Running outside Thurston on the left side, Williams scored the Kangaroos’ second try as he powered through four defenders, then set up the next as he burst through another tackle to send Thurston over. His presence will test England’s right-side defence.

Plays To Watch: Australia will look to cause England plenty of problems with their line running, which has been a feature of their consecutive wins over New Zealand in recent weeks. And the Kangaroos are nothing if not adaptable. Well aware of the success they have had running second-man plays, they changed it up and caught New Zealand napping in the early minutes of last week’s clash, with Matt Scott acting as the decoy but instead receiving the short pass to crash over alongside the posts.

There is no doubt Australia will see how England react to similar situations with numerous players running off their key playmakers.

The History: With the British nations often competing as Great Britain, Australia and England have only faced off nine times since their first meeting back in 1975. Australia currently lead that count six wins to two (with one draw) although both of England’s wins have come on home soil (Australia have won four of six in the Old Dart). England’s biggest win over Australia was by just four points – at Wembley in 1995 – while Australia scored their biggest win just three years ago with a 52-4 thrashing in Melbourne.

Last Time They Met: Australia scored a comfortable 34-14 win in wet conditions at Melbourne’s AAMI Park on October 31 last year. Despite leading 8-6 after 14 minutes, England struggled to keep up with the frenetic pace of the Kangaroos who produced a three-try burst in the space of 10 minutes shortly before half-time to take a 28-6 lead into the break. 

Darren Lockyer was in the thick of the action, setting up Australia’s first two tries with a well-timed pass and a clever kick while back-rower Luke Lewis scored two tries of his own and caused the England defence headaches throughout. Billy Slater, Brent Tate, Willie Tonga and Lote Tuqiri scored Australia’s other tries while Sam Burgess and Luke Robinson crossed for England.

Conclusion: The emergence of young stars Sam Tomkins and Gareth Widdop, the recruitment of Australians Chris Heighington and Jack Reed and the presence of NRL-hardened forwards Adrian Morley and Gareth Ellis all in the one squad suggests that this is an England team on the rise. Boasting a tough forward pack and a promising young backline, they certainly have enough talent these days to return to the top. 

The litmus test will be how they perform against the best side in the world this weekend, however, and they will need to perform at their peak to have a chance of upsetting the Australians. 

This should be a fiery and entertaining contest – but Australia are Four Nations favourites for a reason.

Match Officials: Referee – Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Shane Rehm; Video Referee – Ian Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live, 2.15am Sunday; Fox Sports 3 – Delayed 12:30pm.

Statistics: NRL Stats