Jon Wells' World Cup review: England heroic but plan needed to bridge gap with Australia
By Jon Wells
Last Updated: 04/12/17 12:07pm
Jon Wells assesses England's World Cup final, and looks at what needs to be done to bridge the gap with Australia...
The only place to start is in the 64th minute. A sweeping break by Kallum Watkins down the right flank during England's most promising period of the game split open the Australian defence and for a brief moment, with Whitehead in the clear on the inside, it looked like England were about to draw level.
But to reduce an epic World Cup final to the outstretched left arm of Josh Dugan - which clipped the ankle of Watkins and knocked the momentum and stride of the centre at the crucial moment - would be to ignore the handful of other opportunities that England had to score points, or at least apply further pressure to an increasingly fatigued Australian defence.
In truth, this was the defining moment of the final, and Josh Dugan should be applauded for this effort among many sublime involvements from the Australian right centre. Defining moment? Yes. The reason England lost? No.
England's execution in the final third of the field cost them the final. Back to that later then.
In the meantime, though, let's remember the heroic efforts by England in what was a match of gladiatorial proportions. They looked composed and organised in defence; they had to rely on individual brilliance and desperation at times - but when the calls came they were answered.
Let's take this as a whole - England, when it mattered most, stood up and showed the rugby world what we are capable of.
The 2017 Australian team was special; littered with stars and sprinkled with legends. Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and the mercurial, unflappable, durable Cameron Smith are a triumvirate who will be remembered 50 years from now as among the best the world has seen. And I think we did an exceptional job on all three.
Some media reports have suggested it would have been better if we had lost by 20 points so it wouldn't hurt so much. I think we should embrace that hurt and acknowledge that we were beaten in a World Cup final by the better team. The discussion now should be about bridging that last five per cent.
And here we return to execution. Again, there have been many who would suggest that our halves, Luke Gale and Kevin Brown, are not at the level we need to take England to that next level. I would tend to disagree. I think both are superb players.
Where I do think things need to change is their execution under pressure. To be clear, the execution of plays is the responsibility of the whole team - but it is your halves who come under the most scrutiny because invariably at these moments it is they who have the ball in their hands.
So, where does the solution come from? More international games? A higher intensity of games in Super League? Further personal development? Pressure for places?
The answer is probably a combination of all of these. But there is no hiding from the fact that the setup of the Australian league provides an atmosphere in which players are tested at that higher level of intensity on a more consistent basis.
So how do we replicate this atmosphere in the northern hemisphere game? Again, a combination of factors. The salary cap does now need to be looked at, as player retention is likely to become a bigger issue in the coming years.
The system in Super League needs a couple of tweaks in my opinion to enable its participating teams to physically and mentally compete - the demands on players' bodies and minds at certain times of the year is now not in line with a 21st century elite professional sport.
But the key for me is participation. At all levels. From grassroots rugby through to academy teams, on to the reserve grade competition and filtering into the first team. More players at all levels is ultimately how the Australian league initially opened up the gap, because more players - in the right coaching and training environments - will produce more good players, and more good players will produce more great players.
And if there are more great players who play against one another in a domestic league, you will reduce the margin for error in games. Do this, and those who pull on England shirts in two years, or five years or ten years from now will be executing plays under pressure on a more consistent basis.
For now, though, let's speak highly of this England team. It's not the result anyone wanted but we showed, with the odds stacked against us, what we are capable of on the biggest stage of all.
But - and this is the big 'but' - it would be the biggest crime we could commit as a game to enter 2018 and beyond without a clear idea and road map to bridging that five per cent. The England team of 2017 have given us all the motivation we need as a game - at all levels - to finally look to address the issues in our game which we all know need addressing.