The sad truth for international rugby league is that the chasm that was supposedly closing is probably just as wide as it has ever been.
A bumper 40,000-plus crowd at Anfield for the Four Nations final were treated to what can only be described as a woefully predictable one-sided affair that was decided inside the opening 20 minutes as Australia simply underlined how much better they are than all their rivals, winning by a comfortable 34-8 scoreline against New Zealand.
Admittedly the Kiwis have knocked the Kangaroos off their pedestal a few times in recent years, but the only conclusion that can be taken from the Four Nations tournament is that normal service has definitely been restored in rugby league’s world pecking order.
And from the England perspective the even sadder truth is that the Kiwis were still the only side to suggest that they could perhaps have upset the Aussies after a late but ultimately futile flurry when the Antipodean pair met in the group matches at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
The introduction of arguably the most experienced rugby league coach on the planet was supposed to herald seismic changes for the host nation, but for all his background knowledge of the Australian game Wayne Bennett’s magic touch eluded him.
However, it would be a little unfair to dump the blame on Bennett as what England produced was just so frighteningly similar to what has gone before.
The argument that England have good players really is not under debate, what is missing is an ability to gel as a team and then for that unit to actually believe they have what it takes to overcome both New Zealand and Australia at one go – which is what it would take to win one of these tournaments in true style.
Over the years England – or Great Britain as once was – have had what it takes to pick off one or other of the Kiwis and Kangaroos in a tournament, but to be able to say we have arrived as an international force defeating both of the top nations within one tournament is an absolute must.
If that was the target – and I believe it could be England’s only target – then the Four Nations performance can only be viewed as abject.
I would pick out two key factors to why a team of some talent, and now packed with plenty of players with NRL experience, failed to compete.
Firstly, the England camp never settled on which half back pairing suited the gameplans they wanted to execute.
Three different combinations played in the three group matches and not one truly clicked.
Castleford Tigers’ Luke Gale was scrum half to Halifax-born Gareth Widdop’s stand off against New Zealand at Huddersfield in the opening game.
The Kiwis only won 17-16 thanks to a drop goal slotted over 15 minutes from time, but the man-of-the-match award rightfully went to the Kiwis No7 Shane Johnson, who essentially ran the contest and claimed a try and the decisive one-pointer.
Against Scotland at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, Gale retained his place but Widdop gave way to Wigan’s emerging talent George Williams.
Admittedly the Warriors’ starlet eventually gained the official man-of-the-match award, but for the majority of the contest the most effective and influential force on the field was Scotland’s stand off and skipper Danny Brough.
In fact it took Brough letting his frustrations get the better of him and his sin-binning midway through the second half to actually allow England into the game and canter to a 38-12 victory, but only after sweating for the first half hour as the Huddersfield Giants playmaker had cajoled and guided his team to an unexpected eight point lead.
For the final game against Australia it was Gale who was dropped, Widdop was recalled and Widnes’ former Giants star Kevin Brown stepped up, while Williams was left to try and make an impact from the bench.
The upshot was the Aussie pairing of the legend that is Johnathan Thurston and the ball of energy that is Cooper Cronk simply stifled their opposite numbers and called the shots as the Kangaroos ran in six tries in a 36-18 victory.
This failure to be able to control matches in a key area left England with an uphill fight.
So what they needed was the kind of enigmatic leadership that can pull you through in these situations in a top level game – which brings me to my second point.
In Sam Burgess England looked to have the perfect talismanic captain going into the tournament – what we got was a little different.
You had to hope that Sam returned to England having put the rugby union fiasco behind him and with his sights set on lifting England’s 13-a-side code aspirations to new heights.
Instead he seemed to be on a one-man mission to prove certain parts of this country’s sports media wrong.
So what we got what a ludicrous attempt to pass between his legs and then a crucial and needlessly spilled ball as England tried to get the better of New Zealand in the closing stages at Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium.
There was a more workmanlike display as his helped his side get over the early shock of being behind to Scotland, but then when a win was needed against the Aussies, Sam seemed to get drawn into personal feuds with the men he faces in the NRL every week which culminated in the punch thrown at David Klemmer.
In pretty much any other sport that action would have brought a sending off and had the England skipper got his just reward fleeting hopes of beating the Kangaroos would have been totally killed off – not really what a captain is there for.
Bennett now has a little more time to work his magic and fathom out the best combinations ahead of the 2017 World Cup when England get their next chance to close the chasm.
It’s only in the Aussies own backyard – so here’s hoping!