FOR all Australia are clear favourites in Sunday’s critical Ladbrokes Four Nations encounter, England’s Elliott Whitehead actually thinks the world champions will be “scared” of the pressured hosts.
The situation is England must avoid defeat at London Stadium to reach next Sunday’s final but, on the evidence so far, most people would argue that is highly unlikely.
They were edged out 17-16 by holders New Zealand in their opener and then proved distinctly average for a large part of their meagre 38-12 win over Scotland a week ago.
Indeed, if not for second-row Whitehead’s timely try double, Wayne Bennett’s side would have been 8-0 down at half-time against the tournament minnows rather than narrowly 12-8 ahead.
But Scotland’s unexpected 18-18 draw with New Zealand on Friday night means a win or draw for England against Australia will be enough to see them through.
And former Bradford Bulls star Whitehead, who has been a revelation for Canberra Raiders during his first season in the NRL, maintains they have the quality to defeat the revered Kangaroos for the first time since 1995.
“We’ve not performed at our best yet – we’ve been patchy – but hopefully we can get it right,” said Whitehead.
“They’ll look at our video, Australia, and see some of the things we’ve done, and they will be scared.
“We can put fear into teams; we’ve got some great players who do some real off-the-cuff stuff.
“I don’t see why anybody on this team couldn’t go over there (NRL) and play a part for a team.
“Of course we’re capable of beating them, We know we can.
“However, this week we need a full 80-minute performance,” he said.
Whitehead knows that feeling well; the Yorkshireman has, remarkably, missed just two minutes of action for Canberra all season.
The hard-running forward, who arrived after three years with Catalans Dragons, spent more time on the field than any other player in the NRL in 2016.
In fact, he helped them get to within just 80 minutes of the Grand Final and is relishing facing club colleagues and regular opponents.
“Playing for the Raiders in those big games this year will help massively,” he said, with England hooker Josh Hodgson having been integral to Canberra’s play-offs push.
“Me and Josh actually spoke about it, coming close over there, and about how we need to complete our sets; we’ve learned that if you don’t do that in the NRL, you will struggle.
“Come Sunday I can tick a lot of boxes and hopefully put in my best performance yet.
“It’ll be intense, particularly in the first 20 minutes as we’re going to try and slow them down and get some big hits in.”
There has been, however, a relaxing vibe off the field at times in the build-up to this Test match, engendered by Bennett himself, the steely Australian coach who ordinarily appears so gruff and dour in public.
“I think Wayne has trouble understanding some of us – I had the same problem when I joined Canberra,” joked Bradfordian Whitehead.
“He’s slowly catching up to some of our accents, especially Mark Percival’s Widnes one. He sits at the back of the bus and tells me some stories – he’s a good bloke.
“I’m really enjoying working with him; he’s great with all his players and he likes to be one of the boys.
“I know he comes across differently in the media, but he likes to make sure we’re all relaxed.
“He’s such a great coach, and with what he’s done in the game it really makes me want to play for him.”
The battle up front, as always, will be key, but with England hoping to welcome back Canterbury prop James Graham from injury and Wigan second-row John Bateman – Whitehead’s old Bradford team-mate – rested against Scotland, they are well set.
“In our pack you’ve got Sam Burgess and James Graham, two of the best in the world; I can’t see why our pack can’t handle theirs,” said Whitehead, who added ‘yes’ when asked if England’s forwards were better than their opponents.
“Josh (Hodgson) is right up there alongside Cameron Smith at hooker.
“He showed that all year in the NRL with Canberra on a weekly basis – he was incredibly consistent, and he’s the most professional player I’ve played with on the field, as well as off it.
“We’ve not beaten Australia for a good while and we want everyone to get behind us, make us proud and we’ll show we are capable.
“And we know winning would have a massive impact for rugby league in our country.”