England will be kicking themselves, Tonga pinching themselves, Australia backslapping themselves and the Kiwis will be staring brokenly into the abyss after a rugby league world cup that offered everything from the predictable to the unimaginable.
The only surprise in Saturday night’s Australian final victory over the plucky but doomed-to-fail English was that the match was so close. Had England not been England, they would have won.
Having survived a torrid opening to each half – when they were clearly second best and on the wrong end of some rough refereeing calls (from an Australian ref, officiating in Australia, in a match involving Australia – again) – England were in a position to do what nobody but themselves and a deluded section of their fan base thought possible.
The Kangaroos weren’t broken, but they were blowing badly, a side-effect of not having played a single tough match in the tournament. A defiant huge hit or two from the wonderful Kangaroos back rower Matt Gillett aside, England were utterly dominant up front as the match entered the championship minutes. They had the ruck speed and weight of possession required to put the Australians away. But, being England, they didn’t have the talent.
England’s halves lacked the bite to create a meaningful break, while their centres lacked the skill to get the ball crisply to their superb wingers. A glaring weakness was the inability of the entire backline to pass with alacrity off the left hand. With their most potent player, Jermaine McGillvary stationed on the right flank, the deficiency cost England badly. McGillvary was consistently denied the extra split second he needed to turn a promising movement into a try, relegating England to succession of near misses.
Credit to the Kangaroos; their brilliant defence conceded just 16 points in the tournament. In the knockout stages they conceded just one try, a consolation effort by Fiji in the semi-final. Having held England scoreless for the final 70 minutes of the tournament-opening encounter six weeks ago, the Kangaroos tacked on another 80 minutes of defensive genius on Saturday night. That enabled them to survive despite their frailties – an under-powered forward pack and a brilliant but ageing spine. Had England not been England, the yard of pace Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith no longer possess may have proved fatal.
Tonga will surely have watched the match wondering what might have been – and what might still be should the game’s power brokers uncharacteristically see fit to put the sport’s greater good ahead of Australian self-interest. One thing is certain, the game will ignore the wild, wonderful scenes created by Tonga at this world cup at its peril. It will either join in a welcoming embrace with the Pacific Islands, or continue to stagnate. The choice is that simple.
With a changing of the guard coming as 30-somethings Cronk, Smith, Slater and Johnathan Thurston wind down, Australia has entered a period of regeneration. Typically, this has been seamless, with the cycle of excellence continuing uninterrupted. But, with the NRL now a vastly more cosmopolitan congregation, Australia’s talent pool has shrunk. The question is: how much?
For England, the challenge remains to build a better finishing school out of the Super League or insinuate more key players into the NRL in order to knock off the rough edges that cost them victory on Saturday night. Yes, they got close on Saturday night. But the real message they need to carry home to Blighty is that they just played 150 straight minutes against an ageing Australian team without registering a point.
For New Zealand, the future rests with a pair of Castles – Raelene and Tim – the administrator and lawyer who have been charged with conducting a review into the Kiwis’ catastrophic campaign. Raelene Castle is best known for segueing from leading Netball New Zealand into running the Canterbury Bulldogs fairly well, while Tim Castle was a key figure in the 2015 review of Te Ohu Kaimoana (the Maori Fisheries Trust) and the manager of the late All Blacks legend Jerry Collins.
Both are highly regarded – and have plenty of work to do.
The next Rugby League World Cup will take place in England in 2021.