Australia v England preview

Australia v England
AAMI Park
Sunday 6.30pm (8.30pm NZ)

This is the last throw of the dice for England if they are to stay alive in the Four Nations tournament. And brass tacks time: they’re well and truly up against it. They didn’t give their supporters much to cheer about during their spluttering 24-10 loss to New Zealand last week, and the signs were there during the Kangaroos’ easy 42-0 win over the Kumuls that the green and gold are building into ominous form.

England’s attack came it fits and starts last week. They trailed 18-nil just minutes into the second half before two tries in even time, the latter a spectacular 80-metre effort finished off by fullback Gareth Widdop, propelled them back into the contest with just over 20 minutes to go. But that was that, with Benji Marshall’s 66th-minute four-pointer dousing their flames.

Making their task even tougher against Australia is the fact they’ll be without their best performer from last week, explosive centre Mike Shenton (108 metres, a try assist, three tackle-breaks and 22 tackles), who has been ruled out with ankle ligament damage – possibly for the remainder of the tournament.

Watch out Kangaroos: England’s NRL duo of Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess had subdued games last week. Ellis made just 89 metres (he averaged 103 for the Wests Tigers in 2010) and didn’t bust a tackle, while Burgess made 81 metres (compared to 126 for Souths) for just one tackle bust. Ellis made 18 tackles (his NRL average was 31), Burgess 32 (four more than his weekly workload for the Bunnies).

But expect that all to change this week. The fiercely proud pair are certain to rip in and let the Aussies know they’re in for the fight, so the key for Australia will be to set them back on their heels early and also not give them too many opportunities to back-slap after some pounding defensive hits.

Prop James Graham (16 hit-ups, 130 metres plus 30 tackles last week), is skippering the side against the Aussies for the first time, so he’ll similarly be primed for a huge performance. Other spark should come from halfback Sam Tomkins, who is unafraid to run to the line (three tackle-breaks), while the Storm’s Toyota Cup fullback Gareth Widdop (four tackle-breaks) will be out notch the game of his life against Melbourne’s star incumbent Billy Slater.

Watch out England: The England players need to capitalise more on the opportunities they create. They also need to be selective with their offloads rather than just passing for passing’s sake. Last week against the Kiwis they managed 12 offloads (to NZ’s eight) but were unable to generate much second-phase play. They were limited to just two line-breaks to their opponents’ seven, and offered just one line-break assist (to the Kiwis’ five).

Their lack of impact in attack was further highlighted by their inability to make inroads despite matching the Kiwis for possession efficiency (82 per cent) and slowing down their opponents at the ruck (forcing 22 slow play-the-balls to just 12 themselves). If they don’t do more with the ball the star-studded Kangaroos will blow them off the park.

Halfback Cooper Cronk filled the No.7 jersey admirably last week and his almost psychic combination with Storm team-mates Cameron Smith and Billy Slater should yield points at some stage – Cronk’s chase for a try from a Smith kick against the Kumuls was great off-the-cuff play and England need to be wary of such unpredictable attack.

Where it will be won: Passion and commitment. England don’t have the star power and talent of the Kangaroos but they are capable of an upset win if they go off like firecrackers early, get on the scoreboard and grow in confidence.

It should be remembered England led Australia at one stage in the second half of last year’s Four Nations final before the green and gold pulled away late to score their 46-16 victory. Meanwhile the Kangaroos should terrorise England out wide, with Lote Tuqiri (143 metres) sure to be prominent again.

The History: Meetings 8, Australia 5, England 2, drawn 1. England have lost and drawn the only two games played in Australia, although as part of Great Britain the Lions have won only three of 13 matches Down Under over the past 30 years.

Australia won the final of last year’s Four Nations 46-16 at Elland Road.

Conclusion: It wouldn’t be one of the greatest upsets in rugby league but it is hard to get the head around an England victory. Another thing in the Australians’ favour is they are familiar with the style and expectations of local referee Tony Archer, which should assist their flow.

The key is the battle of the forwards. If the Aussies don’t flinch after a likely forceful “softening up” period by the English, it will provide their speedy backs with a great platform to do their stuff.

Last week we opted for the Kangaroos by 32 points and we were 10 points off the mark; this week we’ll pick the home side by a conservative 10 points.

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer (Australia); Sideline Officials – James Childs (England) & Daniel Caddy (New Zealand); Video Ref – Steve Clark (Australia).

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 6.30pm; Fox Sports – delayed.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.