After a turbulent week which saw him dismiss leading second-row Gareth Hock from his squad after breaking an alcohol ban following a shock loss to Italy, drop star prop James Graham and then walk out of yesterday’s final press conference, the pressure was always going to be on England coach Steve McNamara.
In fairness, he and his squad responded in great fashion, though, opening up an early 10-0 lead and then, after going 22-10 behind, making Australia nervy again when debutant prop George Burgess bundled over in the 50th minute.
Indeed, the Kangaroos did not really confirm victory until Darius Boyd slid over nine minutes from time, Josh Charnley’s late score cutting the deficit once more for England.
However, this Group A result means England - who scored first half tries through Ryan Hall and Leroy Cudjoe - will probably have to beat holders New Zealand in a semi-final to reach the final at Old Trafford on November 30. It will be a tough task.
McNamara made yet another bold call in a week of big decisions by starting debutant Brett Ferres, the Huddersfield Giants second-row who was not even in his original 24-man squad until Hock’s exclusion on Tuesday.
However, the 27-year-old handled the occasion brilliantly and, along with Sam Burgess and Chris Hill, strode England forward in an impressive opening period.
McNamara also handed first caps to 21-year-old twins George and Tom Burgess, the former starting at prop, with the third Dewsbury-born brother Sam locking down at loose as they became the first trio of siblings to represent England together.
Wigan Warriors’ Liam Farrell and Leeds Rhinos half Rob Burrow were the unfortunate ones to miss out.
England got off to that fine start when captain Kevin Sinfield showed confidence, turning down a kickable penalty in the eighth minute and preferring to attack.
It paid off as a slick move to the left was finished off with power by Leeds winger Hall.
Sinfield failed to land the kick from wide out but they went close again after George Burgess barrelled over, video referee Ben Thaler deeming he lost possession in the act though footage seemed inconclusive.
Hill then surged through, too, as the tourists looked rattled, but the Warrington prop could not find a finish,
Australia continued to err though making three successive handling mistakes in their own half. England capitalised on the third when Huddersfield centre Cudjoe rose above Brett Morris to take Sinfield’s pinpoint kick and twist over.
Sinfield converted in the 20th minute before Tim Sheens’ side finally started to find their usual cohesion.
England, with Sam Burgess immense, defended well enough until Greg Inglis plucked off Cooper Cronk’s high kick in front of Sam Tomkins and found Jonathan Thurston in the 27th minute who improved his own score.
Australia upped the tempo and, on the back of some cheap penalties, scored again three minutes before the break, Greg Bird latching onto Thurston’s flat pass for the stand-off to make it 12-10.
Cruelly, though, as England’s own ball control waned, they conceded a third try on the hooter as Billy Slater surged clear from a scrum on halfway after fending the otherwise excellent Sam Burgess, Thurston nailing the conversion from wide out.
When Australia extended that lead through Brett Morris early in the second period, a soft try conceded in the corner albeit after a curious decision from touch judge Robert Hicks, England fans must have feared the worst.
But George Burgess powered over to raise hopes and cut the deficit to just six points,
Australia were clearly nervy once more and it was no surprise Thurston opted for a penalty in the 64th minute.
Earlier, Sam Burgess was put on report for a high tackle on Sam Thaiday which could see him miss next Saturday’s game against Ireland at Huddersfield.
Poor discipline cost England further before Boyd scored and, though Charnley capitalised on a rare Slater mistake near the death, Sheens’ side always had enough.
England lacked a cutting edge again with Rangi Chase struggling to have any impact at six. They looked livelier when Gareth Widdop came on and Sinfield switched to hooker but, by then, there was too many tiring bodies out there to capitalise.
Australia: Slater; B Morris, Tate, Inglis, Boyd; Thurston, Cronk; Scott, Smith, Tamou, Bird, Thaiday, Gallen. Substitutes: Farah, Fifita, Lewis, Parker.
England: Tomkins; Charnley, Watkins, Cudjoe, Hall; Chase, Sinfield; Hill, Roby, G Burgess, Ferres, Westwood, S Burgess. Substitutes: Widdop, Ablett, T Burgess, Mossop.
Referee: Henry Perenara (New Zealand)