FOR more than an hour, England showed they can challenge the finest.
During a painful final quarter, Australia equally showed in frightening style why England can only challenge and still not deliver.
That elusive quest for success over their fiercest rivals continues now into a 38th year after the Kangaroos ripped the hosts apart with casual ease, making it look like they had only been toying with Tony Smith's men all along.
Australia, with Billy Slater peerless at full-back and Jonathan Thurston as artful as ever, ran in four tries in the final 14 minutes to walk away with the Gillette Four Nations title, killing their own demons in an instant following last year's World Cup loss to New Zealand.
It was the sheer calibre of their threat out wide during that prolific period, stretching out a narrow 22-16 lead, that rammed home the difference between the sides.
England had been dominant again up front and their youthful half-backs Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond zipped around causing the visitors plenty of nervous moments.
But when the ball went wide, England rarely looked capable of piercing their opponents, a downfall which has long been acknowledged but will not disappear any time soon.
In the effervescent Slater, who finished with a hat-trick, the majestic Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne, who finally came good in the last match of the tournament, Australia had no such problem.
Although the scoreline belies it, the game was worthy of a final and proved a true Test match for the majority.
The first tackle of the contest saw England prop Adrian Morley ferociously collide with opposite number Ben Hannant and the hosts started with real belief, carrying on from the booming performance against New Zealand that had secured their spot at Elland Road.
A Kevin Sinfield stabbed kick saw Slater slip behind his own line needing to desperately stretch out a hand to defuse while Michael Shenton shot out to floor Darren Lockyer with a bruising tackle, the Green and Golds' captain, playing his 50th Test, coughing up possession such was the impact.
Their winger Brett Morris then thought he had touched down but video referee Phil Bentham deemed the St George's man spilled and England immediately doubled their misery by going in for the game's first.
Bradford Bulls' Sam Burgess, operating at loose forward again, stormed through from 40 metres for a classic try.
Hitting the ball at pace, his footwork alone left giant prop Petero Civoniceva beaten but then the South Sydney-bound player – more renowned for his shuddering collisions – showed great pace and more skill by ignoring Eastmond's support and deftly dummying full-back Slater before sliding over between the posts.
Sinfield improved the glorious try which had the majority of a 31,000 crowd on its feet and when Cameron Smith's re-start sailed dead, the noise went up another notch.
England should have capitalised again, Eastmond cleverly putting Burgess speeding through another hole but this time the player's pumping confidence got the better of him.
With Tomkins on his shoulder and certain to score, Burgess tried selling another dummy. Slater, succeeded by Hayne as International Player of the Year, took one but would not fall for the same trick twice.
England still had the chance but Thurston was alert to the threat, intercepting James Graham's pass and sprinting straight down the middle.
Inglis supported and, although Shenton continued his excellent defensive work by collaring him, it only delayed the inevitable.
Some fine handling this time put Morris over legitimately and Thurston's kick made it 6-6 when England should have been motoring at 12-0.
But they were not deterred. Peter Fox put them back in front in the 19th minute, the Hull KR winger getting his third try in just two games when brilliantly rising above Hayne to collect Eastmond's perfectly-weighted kick.
Australia were shaky. Lockyer had sliced a kick backwards earlier and when Slater produced one of his typical arcing runs wide, Morris fumbled the pass into touch. Maybe this could be England's night for the first time since their 1972 World Cup triumph? However, Australia then clicked with the sort of brilliance that can only be admired.
Smith ran from dummy half on halfway, fed Thurston who handed back inside to Hayne, coming off his wing to cut England up down the middle.
He kicked on and inevitably Inglis – the man who had hurt England so badly in Wigan a fortnight earlier – won the race.
It was dubious whether he was in control as he touched down but Bentham awarded it and Thurston converted, adding a penalty soon after to send them in 14-10 ahead.
England showed their purpose by re-taking the lead in the 50th minute, Burgess storming in for his second with his first touch after coming back on, hitting Ellis's excellent flat pass with Sinfield improving.
But it did not last longer than four minutes as Slater burrowed over from dummy half before Morris got his second beating Ryan Hall to Thurston's kick.
Shenton suffered a massive head collision with Hannant while attempting a tackle and the game was held up for five minutes as the Castleford centre received treatment.
He was stretchered off and recovered in the dressing room but Australia responded after the enforced break. The midfield axis of Smith, Lockyer and Thurston took control to take the game away from the hosts.
Slater skilfully palmed back Lockyer's kick for Smith to touch down; Smith's break was continued by Lockyer for Slater to finish; and a Lockyer kick saw Hayne get in before Slater completed his treble off Kurt Gidley's break and kick ahead, leaving broken England contemplating another missed opportunity to end that nightmare run.
Hero: Greg Inglis
He may not have plundered the tries or even the assists but every time the big yet supremely elegant centre received possession you realised something amazing could happen.
Villain: Sam Burgess
England's best player with his two tries, including that majestic first-half individual effort, but still the villain. Failing to find Sam Tomkins proved an awful decision and instead of being 12-0 up, England found themselves six apiece.
Sam Burgess backing himself could have been a turning point. But the lengthy delay when Michael Shenton was injured, with England trailing 22-16 but still looking strong, handed Australia a much-needed chance to catch their breath ready for that final flourish.
Leon Williamson (New Zealand): Plenty of pressure on the part-time official after all the pre-match politics and debating about who should get the role. Seemed to handle the occasion reasonably well and it was video referee Phil Bentham who came under most scrutiny.
England have made undoubted progress since last year's World Cup and restored some pride with their displays in this tournament. But on the night, they were brutally exposed in the end by Australia's vastly superior three-quarters who offered so much more threat.
Quote of the day
What a way to finish off … if he does. He's just been amazing.
– Australia centre Greg Inglis pays tribute to captain Darren Lockyer after his 50th – and possibly final – Test match
The wait goes on. Roll on 2010 and the next Four Nations. Honestly. There is plenty to be hopeful about.