Dave Craven: Improvement needed if England are to end Australian dominance

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IT ILLUSTRATES the sheer size of the task ahead that, if England are to win the World Cup on Saturday, they must still play considerably better than the fine display produced during a truly epic semi-final against Tonga.

Moreover, that statement is not simply in hindsight after the chaotic last eight minutes in Auckland when Wayne Bennett’s side conceded three tries to almost blow their hopes of a first final appearance since 1995.

No, even when heading into that dramatic denouement with an impressive 20-0 lead against the powerful Tongans – charged on by arguably the most vociferous fans in Test match history – plenty of knowing England fans will have realised it was still not good enough.

That is in no way belittling their efforts, which were excellent for the large part, but simply a stark reminder of how formidable the Australia side they next face in Brisbane really are.

The Kangaroos had a far easier proposition in their semi-final, easing past Fiji 54-6.

Some believe that is a negative as the holders have still not encountered a gnarled opponent that has genuinely tested them and, therefore, will not be battle-hardened when facing England.

It is, though, a fanciful view; when it comes to rugby league, Australians seem innately battle-hardened. They will be ready.

To put it all into perspective, the Green and Golds have been world champions since 1975 aside from one aberration, that shock loss against New Zealand in 2008.

People will point to that, too, and say it is, then, possible that they can be beaten. True.

But, at the same time, all the stars have to align, meaning even if Australia are slightly off – and there is nothing to suggest they will be – then England also have to be almost perfect.

Which brings me back to the original point. England need to be nigh-on faultless and it remains to be seen whether they have that sort of control and discipline in their armoury.

Admittedly, Saturday’s semi-final performance was their best yet under Bennett’s command since he took over two years ago and, if they improve again, they can undoubtedly challenge Australia.

Their forward pack, once more, demonstrated just how strong it really is with James Graham having a towering game, Alex Walmsley and Tom Burgess bringing so much impact from the bench, and Elliott Whitehead performing with all of his usual under-stated excellence.

Defensively, up until the mayhem at the end, they were superb, just as they have been throughout this tournament.

However, England’s kicking game left a lot to be desired and that has to be sorted before Saturday. Tellingly, the one time Luke Gale did manage to direct an accurate kick and force a drop-out, his side scored in the resultant set.

To build anything near the sort of pressure required to topple Mal Meninga’s side, that area of England’s game has to improve vastly. Similarly, their execution when shifting the ball still has to be crisper. When it was, they created tries for Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman, but still too often there was clunky distribution.

Compare that to Australia’s rapid and accurate deliveries against Fiji and it is obvious there will be no scope for missed opportunities.

Also, it will be intriguing to see whether England recover both physically and mentally after such a bruising encounter as the one witnessed in Auckland.

All of that said, this is a glorious opportunity to win a maiden World Cup and in their first final since as long ago as 1995.

England have chance to banish almost half-a-century of pain and anguish suffered at the international top table, with Great Britain’s last World Cup victory, of course, being in 1972.

They have benefited from some good fortune – if the decision had gone to the video referee would Andrew Fifita’s last-second disallowed try for Tonga have been awarded? – and, no doubt, they will need some more on Saturday.

But there is the opportunity to become heroes and, ironically, maybe it will be Bennett, the Australian in the camp, who can bring that crucial missing ingredient when it matters most.