England 20, Australia 36
ENGLAND were left licking their wounds despite a valiant effort to overcome Australia at Wembley on Saturday.
The Aussie had to cope with the loss of inspirational full-back Billy Slater, but it was a chance once again for Saints trio James Roby, NRL-bound James Graham and Jon Wilkin to prove they are among the best in the world.
England will hope to earn a re-match at Elland Road by overcoming New Zealand in their last group match in Hull next Saturday, and there was enough evidence to suggest they could go a step further.
They took an early lead with the first of winger Ryan Hall’s two tries, and might have sprung a shock victory but for a controversial decision of referee Henry Perenara to disallow a Tom Briscoe touchdown when the match was delicately balanced.
With will o’the wisp full-back Sam Tomkins thrilling the 42,344 crowd with his trademark dashes, and Kevin Sinfield and Rangi Chase continuing to build on their lively half-back partnership, England were full of invention, but were left to rue a series of defensive lapses which proved costly.
The fans had plenty to cheer from the moment England took the lead with an 11th-minute try from Hall.
Second rower Ben Westwood looked a certain scorer after taking Sinfield’s pass, but Slater not only brought him down short of the line but stole the ball at the same time.
But England maintained the pressure, and went in front when Hall took a pass from his Leeds skipper Sinfield and evaded the flying challenge of Slater to brilliantly touch down one-handed by the flag.
Slater paid the price for his heroic efforts as he was led to the sidelines, and coach Tim Sheens was forced to reshuffle his side, with Darius Boyd switching to full-back and second rower Luke Lewis moving on to the wing.
However, Lewis looked an accomplished threequarter on 16 minutes when he was on hand to take Boyd’s long pass and beat three defenders to cross for an equalising try.
It was against the run of play once more when the Kangaroos extended their lead on 29 minutes as giant forward Tony Williams, who made a big impact from the bench against the Kiwis, brushed off a poor attempted tackle by Chris Heighington to romp over for a try.
Thurston kicked his second conversion to make it 12-4, but England struck back a minute before the break to leave the match finely balanced.
Tomkins stepped majestically through the heart of the Australian defence and, with the aid of a delightful flick pass, combined with impressive centre Jack Reed to get Hall charging over for his second try, brilliantly holding off Boyd to touch down.
Sinfield, off target with his first conversion attempt, hit the post this time to leave England trailing by just four points at the interval.
But any momentum England might have derived from the try disappeared within five minutes of the restart when Australia scored again.
Briscoe knocked on in the tackle inside his own half to gift the visitors an attacking position, and half-backs Darren Lockyer and Thurston worked the ball out wide for Greg Inglis to glide over for his 16th Test try.
Thurston’s third goal made it 18-8, and England missed a glorious chance to get back in the game on 47 minutes when Briscoe was contentiously denied.
The winger stretched out of Boyd’s tackle to plant the ball over the line, but Perenara ruled a double movement, despite slow-motion replays indicating otherwise.
England coach Steve McNamara clearly thought his side had been wronged.
Australia had Williams put on report for an ugly tackle around the neck of Westwood, and Anthony Watmough was lectured after coming to blows with Gareth Widdop.
But the Aussies extended their lead on 52 minutes when prop Paul Gallen went over from Cooper Cronk’s pass, and Thurston kicked his fourth goal.
The comeback was back on when Reed outjumped Boyd to collect Sinfield’s high kick on the hour, and raced clear to score his third try in as many matches. Sinfield landed his first successful goal to cut the gap to 10 points.
England thought they were still in the game when Tomkins and Reed scrambled superbly to pull off last-ditch try-saving tackles on Thurston and Inglis but there was no way back when Boyd went over for a fifth try on 72 minutes.
As both defences tired, Tomkins produced another delightful offload to get Heighington over for a try, while Chris Lawrence twisted out of Sinfield’s tackle to score Australia’s final try, with Thurston taking his goal tally to six from as many attempts.