Australia v England
Elland Road, Leeds
Sunday, 5am AEST
It’s the dream final that could signal the dawn of a new era in international rugby league and rekindle one of the game’s great rivalries. England’s stunning revival in the 2011 Four Nations to reach the final against old foes Australia has set the scene for a thrilling conclusion when the two sides meet in Leeds this Sunday morning (Australian time) – one that means far more than just the silverware that will be awarded to the eventual champion.
Not since 1995, with their 20-16 win at Wembley in the World Cup, has England upset the Kangaroos; however recent efforts aimed at a return to the glory days appear to be paying dividends. The inclusion of Australian-based stars Chris Heighington, Jack Reed and Gareth Widdop has had a huge impact on the home side’s football and it is hard to ignore the clinical manner in which they disposed of reigning Four Nations champions New Zealand last week.
In fact, they could even consider themselves unlucky not to have shocked Australia a week earlier when a series of controversial calls against them contributed to their 36-20 loss. The increasing propensity for English players such as Gareth Ellis and Bulldogs-bound James Graham to try their hand in the NRL promises many more intense battles ahead but England will be confident that they already have the ability to win their first Four Nations crown.
Sunday’s final represents a significant milestone in the career of prop Adrian Morley, who will become his country’s most capped player when he runs out for the 50th time. He will be keen to ensure the day is that much more memorable by toppling the tournament favourites.
Still, as motivation goes, it’s hard to top Darren Lockyer’s farewell.
The veteran of a record 355 first grade games over 17 seasons in the NRL will play his 59th and final Test when he runs onto Elland Road and the Australians will be determined to ensure his career finishes on a fitting high.
No doubt, too, that Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens will be glad to have him back after resting him against the Welsh last week. Although the sheer class of Australia shone through in the end, the world’s No.1 side struggled for cohesion in the first half – leading just 18-8 at the break before running away in the second half to score a comfortable 56-14 win.
Lockyer is one of a number of key players returning to bolster the Kangaroos’ line-up, with enforcer Tony Williams back from his one-match suspension and Luke Lewis also available again after missing the Wales game through illness. Akuila Uate will be recalled on the right wing with either Josh Morris or Jharal Yow Yeh making way, while Corey Parker and Beau Scott are also likely to drop out.
England is expected to name the same squad that accounted for New Zealand 28-6 last week.
Watch Out Kangaroos: Young fullback Sam Tomkins looks to be the superstar that England have been waiting for. The dynamic 22-year-old has arguably been the standout performer of the Four Nations in 201 – blitzing Wales for four tries in the tournament opener three weeks ago, troubling Australia a week later and running circles around New Zealand last Saturday. Blessed with dazzling footwork and scintillating, he is the X-Factor that threatens to throw a spanner in Australia’s defensive works.
Watch Out England: Back from his one-match suspension in time for the final, Kangaroos back-rower Tony Williams is set to again make England’s life miserable in the final following two destructive performances in the round matches. Weighing in at a monstrous 118kg, Williams terrorised England a fortnight ago – sending Chris Heighington flying on his way to scoring Australia’s second try and running for 118 metres in a match-defining performance. He will again take plenty of stopping this weekend.
Plays To Watch: Australia’s edge defenders need to be on the ball against an English side that loves to spread the ball wide. In particular they must keep a close eye on halfback Rangi Chase, who will often dummy repeatedly to his line runners before firing the ball out wide. England scored their first try against New Zealand in this exact fashion and found similar success against Wales with this play a fortnight earlier.
Australia are the masters of the second-man play and are certain to test the host’s ability to read in defence – particularly on England’s right side. The presence of Darius Boyd at fullback suggests the Kangaroos will at some stage adopt the second-man play, with Boyd wrapping around the back of a decoy runner before putting his winger in space.
The History: Played 10, Australia 7, England 2, drawn 1. Australia boasts a dominant record against England with just two losses and a draw in their 10 meetings – the most recent coming two weeks ago. In fact, it is now 16 years since England last tasted victory against Australia when they won a thriller 20-16 at the 1995 World Cup – the four-point margin also their biggest ever win over the Kangaroos (although playing as Great Britain they did manage a 23-12 win during the 2006 Tri Nations at the Sydney Football Stadium). Australia’s biggest win over England was a 52-4 thrashing in Melbourne three years ago.
Last Time They Met: Australia secured their place in this year’s Four Nations final with a 36-20 win over a gallant England two weeks ago. It was a tough slog for the Aussies, who conceded the first try and enjoyed some good fortune with the match on the line early in the second half when England winger Tom Briscoe was denied a fair try early in the second stanza. Having trailed 4-0 early, tries to Luke Lewis, Tony Williams and Greg Inglis gave Australia an 18-8 lead shortly after the half-time break and they took advantage of Briscoe’s misfortune to run away with the result soon after.
Conclusion: This promises to be the most enthralling Australia-England rugby league Test in years. England’s resurgence as an international force isn’t yet complete but they boast plenty of talent and have been in fine form throughout this year’s Four Nations. Still, toppling this Australian side will be no simple task.
Darren Lockyer’s impending retirement has the Kangaroos fired up to finish the job and although star fullback Billy Slater is missing through injury, the presence of their other big three in Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith is crucial. Australia will be confident of scoring yet another trophy and they deserve their favouritism.
Match Officials: Referee – Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – James Child & Shane Rehm; Video Referee – Ian Smith.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live, Sunday, 4.45am; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 7am.