It’s been a year of unchecked success for Australia’s rugby league team.
They ended 2016 unbeaten under new coach Mal Meninga, have reclaimed the Four Nations title following Sunday’s emphatic victory over New Zealand and they have returned to the top of the world rankings.
Just 12 months before they attempt to retain their World Cup crown down under, they look a formidable outfit.
They are a team which will “take some stopping”, in the words of former Great Britain international Jonathan Davies.
After a decidedly one-sided Four Nations, can anyone realistically stop Meninga’s team?
Battling the immortals
New Zealand coach David Kidwell said after Sunday’s 34-8 defeat at Anfield that there were “possibly two or three immortals” in the spine of the Australia team.
He was talking about the half-back pairing of Johnathan Thurston and man of the series Cooper Cronk, and of captain and hooker Cameron Smith.
When asked about Kidwell’s comment, Meninga added that he thought centre Greg Inglis could be considered in that category as well.
Their craft, composure and game management has been evident over the last few weeks and no other national team can compete with their combined skill and experience in so many crucial positions.
As former England international Jon Wilkin said: “The most impressive thing about this Australian side is the rugby league brains they’ve got.
“In rugby league and rugby union, we’re obsessed with producing athletes. These guys are good athletes but it’s their rugby league brains that are so impressive.”
Some wondered whether the Australian pack would be able to compete with England and New Zealand, but they more than held their own and laid a platform for their back division to exploit.
The Australians built pressure superbly, completed their sets, kicked clinically to pin down each of their opponents – and eventually wore them down.
We saw that at London Stadium, where England at one point led 6-2 – the only time the Kangaroos were behind on the tour – but lost 36-18.
“If I was a coach of any professional team, I would be cutting videos of Australia to show how to get key decisions right,” said former Australia international Kurt Gidley on the BBC.
What hope is there for England?
Rugby Football League chairman Brian Barwick said in his programme notes for Sunday’s final that England had “much to build on” and that their Australian coach Wayne Bennett knows what is “needed to take them to the next step”.
But after a Four Nations that saw England defeated by both Australia and New Zealand, fans could be forgiven for wondering if their team are as far away as ever from threatening the dominance of the top two.
Following England’s elimination, new coach Wayne Bennett said his players do not “realise how good they are”.
England had Sam Burgess back in their ranks following his return from rugby union, as well as top performers in the Australian National Rugby League such as James Graham and Josh Hodgson, and the best from Super League.
But they spilled the ball or conceded penalties at crucial moments on numerous occasions – and some people wondered whether the team had gone backwards after a morale-boosting 2-1 series win over the Kiwis last year.
“I’m not so sure England have gone backwards,” said former Great Britain coach Brian Noble. “The fact we used three different half-back pairings leads me to believe Wayne Bennett was looking at the whole squad.
“We’ve got some fabulous players and there are 10 or 11 of those playing in the NRL, so they shouldn’t worry about intensity or belief.”
Davies suggested that it is not all “doom and gloom”, arguing that England have one of the best forward packs in the world.
In the long term, it may well be that England simply need a bigger talent pool to pick from if they are to compete with the best on a regular basis.
“One thing we can do is come up with a long-term plan,” added Wilkin. “It feels like every year we’re talking about the same issues, about having more competitive games and high-intensity games to match the NRL.
“This conversation has been going on for 15 years. We need more junior players, and we need to put that in a cohesive plan for five or 10 years.”
Read more: ‘England need direction and composure’
And what about New Zealand?
The Kiwis might want to look back a little for some inspiration.
Back in 2013, New Zealand were hammered 34-2 in the World Cup final at Old Trafford. The following year, they defeated Australia twice as they won the Four Nations title under coach Stephen Kearney.
As Kearney’s successor, Kidwell certainly had a difficult start in his first major tournament in charge of the Kiwis. They were scratchy in a 17-16 win over England, were held by Scotland and were hammered in the final.
“They will need to go back to the drawing board,” said former Kiwi international and BBC pundit Robbie Hunter-Paul. “New Zealand are in the process of building again. They have a new coach who needs to put his own stamp on the team. It is a development phase.”
Kidwell and his skipper Jesse Bromwich looked stunned as they answered questions after Sunday’s match.
A former Kiwi international who played for numerous NRL clubs, Kidwell believes he has learned a lot about what he must do to make his team competitive next year.
“I have told the boys that we have got to get back our belief,” he said. “That starts with hard work and doing the little things in games that really count.
“We made seven errors in the first 20 minutes against Australia and that is a tough way to try to win a football game.”
Noble is adamant that they can be a threat next year.
He said: “They’ve had a disappointing tournament, that’s all. They won’t be far away for the World Cup.”
They will need half-back Shaun Johnson to sparkle, they will need their powerful ball-playing forwards to find their form and they will need to find a resolve and discipline largely absent during this Four Nations.
Don’t forget the Bravehearts
Nobody expects Scotland to win the World Cup next year but when analysing who triumphed in the the Four Nations it would be foolish not to mention the Bravehearts.
OK, so they got off to an awful start against Australia, losing 54-12, but they took the lead against England and battled to a famous and memorable draw against the Kiwis in Workington.
That draw ensured they became the first team outside the big three to take something from a match at the Four Nations.
“Any neutral fan can see how well we’ve done,” said Scotland coach Steve McCormack.
Nobody would argue with that… but the jury is still out on how to stop the formidable Aussies.
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-league/38046127