Four Nations review: England

There was so much talk before the Four Nations kicked off that new England head coach Wayne Bennett was the man who could deliver success at a major tournament.

The Australian, who has a vast amount of experience, would have at least been expected to take the hosts into the final at Anfield. This was the best England squad for some time.

When that didn’t happen there were questions raised about whether he is the right man for the job. His awkardness with the media didn’t help proceedings.

It is worth remembering that his tenure has been a brief one and to remove him from the position so close to the World Cup seems farcical.

One of the problems which affected England throughout the tournament was the lack of minutes the players had spent together as a squad beforehand.

Just one match against France does not provide sufficient time for everybody to become accustomed with their teammates, and it certainly doesn’t give Bennett long to properly communicate and implement his ideas.

If England had played a few competitive fixtures throughout the regular season, relationships between players on the field would have been allowed to develop which may have produced a more composed team at this Four Nations.

Another talking point ahead of the tournament was the appointment of Sam Burgess as captain – the last time he played for England was at the 2013 World Cup before switching codes to try his hand at rugby union.

Burgess, who has little experience as a captain, took over from the unavailable Sean O’Loughlin. He was preferred in the role to James Graham, who has led England before and captains his club side Canterbury.

From the first whistle against New Zealand he stamped his authority with some huge tackles and there is no doubt England are a better side with the 27-year old in the team.

There were key moments when he demonstrated his ability as a leader but then there were other occasions which were unacceptable, like the punch which he threw at David Klemmer.

The game might have been far out of England’s reach but had the team gone down to 12 men for Burgess’ moment of madness it would have been hugely disappointing. The forward also gave away many penalties and at times appeared to be trying too hard.

As for the other players who were drafted into the team, Jonny Lomax made a good impression coming to the rescue a number of times against all three of the other teams and set up several tries.

His Saints’ teammate Mark Percival was another uncapped player who made his debut but struggled in London against Australia.

A player which didn’t get enough game time was Warrington’s Daryl Clark.

Despite Josh Hodgson’s promising performances for the Canberra Raiders in the NRL over the past few years, he failed to reproduce that form at the Four Nations.

Clark, is a player who adds a whole different dynamic in attack – last season in Super League he made the third highest amount of runs out of dummy half/

Someone who failed to live up to expectations was Castleford’s Luke Gale. The scrum-half was fairly quiet in the opening match against the Kiwis and he failed to stamp his authority on the game against Scotland. Having a different halves partner in each game hardly helped him though.

Widnes’ Kevin Brown, who more than merited a return to the international scene after impressing for the Vikings last season, was unable to put the Australians under any real pressure with a number of poor kicks.

There were a number of opportunities in the first half of the game against New Zealand which England should have converted but a poor pass or a wayward kick let them down.

The result was that New Zealand finished the half in front, after taking one of a handful of chances.

With a quarter of an hour to go in the second half, the hosts trailed by one point but a lack of composure yet again caused England to fluff several chances.

First Dan Sarginson looked destined to be the hero for England but dropped Gareth Widdop’s pass a metre from the whitewash.

Then Burgess made a bad decision trying a needless pass through his legs, which was forward, when England were in a great position and so close to the New Zealand try line.

After the disappointing start to the tournament in Huddersfield against the Kiwis, England’s next assignment was a first-ever competitive match at senior level against Scotland in Coventry.

The Bravehearts were 26-0 down after just 24 minutes against Australia in their opening fixture but scored two tries without reply by the same point in the match against England.

One of the main reasons why England got back into the game before the interval was George Williams.

His direct style of play entices opposition defenders and was something that could have potentially tipped the balance in England’s favour during their previous encounter against New Zealand.

England made sure of victory after Danny Brough was sent to the sin bin but there were still a lot of questions to be answered ahead of the third match against Australia in London.

A draw or a win was needed for England to ensure they were at Anfield and even though it seemed a tall order on paper, there was the psychological advantage for Bennett’s men that the Kangaroos had already qualified.

That being said, England failed to make a convincing start with poor kicks from Hodgson and Widdop among others, gifting the green and gold simple field position.

England were valiant in defence, snuffing out several chances for the world champions to score before Jermaine McGillvary went down the other end and posted the game’s first try.

The hosts had every right to go into the interval with a lead but were let down by some terrible discipline which gifted Australia several penalties before Blake Ferguson crossed over.

Not only would it have been slightly demoralizing to see Australia leading at half-time but it must have also been frustrating for Bennett, who would have known it could have so easily been a different story.

Brown was picked ahead of Williams but the Widnes man was largely ineffective during the match, with a number of kicks failing to put the Aussies under any real pressure.

Just ten minutes after coming on it was Williams who made the run drawing in Cooper Cronk before picking out Widdop to score.

Despite the introduction of Williams, Australia continued to turn the screw and eventually ran out comfortable winners come the final hooter.

With less than a year until England’s first group match against the Kangaroos in Melbourne, there needs to be an effort by the RFL to organize more mid-season fixtures. Already England will head to Sydney in May to take on Samoa.

It might well mean sacrificing Super League matches but the national team will find it hard to make any real progress unless they become accustomed to one another on the international stage.

Bennett also needs to work out what his best half-back partnership is and stick with it.

The combination was different for each of the matches at the Four Nations and a lack of continuity in that department will really hinder the team’s development.

Based on his recent performances, Williams is a strong candidate but it remains to be seen who would partner him with neither Brown, Widdop nor Gale having a massive influence.

The controversial issue of heritage players is set to rear its head again in 2017. Bennett may look at a Blake Austin or a Trent Hodkinson to place in the halves to give the team the organisation and direction it needs.

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