Dave Craven: Time for England to deliver in Four Nations

New Zealand's Benji Marshall (Picture: Vaughn Ridley/SWPix.com)
New Zealand's Benji Marshall (Picture: Vaughn Ridley/SWPix.com)
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It was typical of that cheeky scamp Lee Briers to add some humour to the Gillette Four Nations launch by casually describing it as the “Three Nations” when questioned.

The Wales captain realises his country appear a mere afterthought given all the customary fuss surrounding Australia, New Zealand and England.

As newcomers to the tournament, replacing fellow underdogs Papua New Guinea and France in this year’s make-up, it is understandable why especially as their inexperienced squad contains a substantial number of part-time players.

But Briers’s mere presence alone is enough to instill hope that they will be more than just cannon fodder.

The classy Warrington stand-off, who has effortlessly unpicked so many defences over the years while somehow being ignored by Great Britain bosses, will finally get the chance again to test himself against the best and anything could happen.

English fans will do well to remember that not only when the gifted veteran takes them on tomorrow but in the wider sense; there are no certainties in this Four Nations.

Just as a written-off Wales may spring a surprise in Leigh tomorrow, England could similarly do damage to their antipodean visitors.

There are so many familiar faces on this tour for Australia with that formidable axis of Darren Lockyer, Cameron Smith, Jonathan Thurston and Billy Slater again proving their core while New Zealand have such influences as the mesmeric Benji Marshall, Thomas Leuluai and a toughened Jeremy Smith.

But equally so there are so many of their stellar assets missing that it has to offer some crumb of hope that they may just be susceptible. Possibly.

England understand they have to iron out any of their problems stemming from that friendly win against France immediately against Wales.

There were some worrying defensive errors when players simply switched off and saw their concentration levels desert them and that has to improve.

While in many ways playing the minnows first gives them chance to ease into the tournament it also means, if there are any further problems tomorrow, they go in against Australia the following week still undercooked.

While Steve McNamara was employed to take England through to the 2013 World Cup, with the ultimate aim of winning that trophy, the England coach knows he will also be judged on the next four weeks.

His first tournament in charge last year was blighted by injury problems.

Captain Jamie Peacock, stand-in Adrian Morley and Leeds Rhinos duo Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire all missed the competition, while Castleford centre Michael Shenton had to fly home early.

It was no surprise given such casualties that they failed to impress Down Under delivering just a solitary victory against Papua New Guinea.

However, McNamara has no such issues this time around and, with Peacock back to his best following major knee surgery, and Sinfield back in place, as well as the bonus of home advantage, they have the potential to deliver.

Two years ago, England reached the Elland Road final and matched Australia for an hour before succumbing under a late barrage of pressure.

That night Lockyer, Thurston and co turned the screw with devastating effect and reminded everyone of their undoubted menace.

England should be more experienced now and also have some added flair in the shape of Man of Steel Rangi Chase.

The exuberant Castleford Tigers stand-off can do for England what Marshall does for New Zealand if given the licence to roam.

Up front, England are as strong as any with Peacock, Morley, James Graham, Gareth Ellis and Ben Westwood forming a punishing pack with James Roby excelling this season yet again out of dummy half.

They will hope New Zealand’s recent struggles on their travels – the Kiwis were abysmal here in 2007 and only marginally better two years later – will continue to see them gain chance of reaching another final, but much will depend on their meeting in Hull on November 12.

That already looks like potentially being the significant tie of the whole tournament unless someone can upstage favourites Australia.

Briers may have come close to doing that in the memorable 2000 World Cup semi-final but that Wales vintage was far stronger than this.

England, or Great Britain, have a history of being able to conquer Australia at Wembley, notably in 1990, 1994 and 1995, but it is expected they will have to overcome the Kiwis at the KC Stadium to secure their passage.

New Zealand have it tough from the off knowing they will be missing key front-rows Adam Blair and Russell Packer for tonight’s opener against Australia but it is hard to envisage them ever playing as badly as they did in Newcastle.

In the elusive Kevin Locke they have one of the potential stars of the tournament while Issac Luke remains a significant danger around the ruck if the likes of Fuifui Moimoi can get on top.

But it is hard to look past an Australia side who may still be able to afford to leave Greg Inglis out of their 17 in readiness for Wembley. With Lockyer on his farewell tour as he prepares to close the curtain on a golden career, New South Wales prop Paul Gallen in the form of his life and wing sensation Akuila Uate the latest in a long line of breathtaking three-quarters, they have all the tools.

There has been obvious reference this week to the fact they are still smarting from last year’s final loss against the Kiwis in Brisbane let alone the 2008 World Cup final misery.

Briers labelled it the Three Nations, but only one will remain come November 19.

England must grab this opportunity now.