Coventry’s Ricoh Arena played host to a bonfire night double-header in the second round of this year’s Four Nations. Although an Auld fixture in Rugby Union, Saturday was the first ever Rugby League meeting between England and Scotland. Both sides lined up in the chilling Coventry night knowing that a win would keep their tournament hopes alive but more realistically for the Scots, making history by becoming the first of the ‘fourth’ nations to win a match since the tournament began in 2009 was the ultimate goal.
Despite being heavy favourites to win, England suffered a dismal start at the hands of the Scots. The hosts were particularly lethargic. Sloppy passing errors and numerous penalties disrupted their attempts at early momentum and the Scots capitalised. After a quarter of the match, tries from Kane Linnett and Matty Russell saw Scotland accumulate the most unlikely of leads: 8-0. Russell’s try was a terrific display of athleticism. Muscling his way towards the line from five metres out and holding off the tackles from England’s McGillvary and Watkins, Russell stretched over the defence, twisting as he did so, to place the ball down one-handed. The video referee was needed to confirm the score and England’s woeful start.
The Bravehearts’ start was certainly a true reflection of their name, but their ill-discipline was to prove costly. Seven first half penalties allowed England a way back into the match and they were on the scoreboard just before the half hour. The first of two tries from Dean Whitehead opening the scoring as he side-stepped in a well-worked passing move. His second came five minutes later as England began to assert their dominance. A deft kick wrong-footed the Scottish defence leaving an open path for Whitehead.
England’s late first half momentum saw them over the line. England had extended their lead to 22-8 with Ryan Hall’s 30th try in as many games, gathering a clinical kick from George Williams to score in the corner. Hall is now the highest scorer in for England in this code of rugby, now ten ahead of unselected full-back Sam Tomkins. Scotland captain, Danny Brough, visit to the sin-bin halfway through the second period allowed England to cover themselves with more glory than they deserved. Further tries from McGillvary and Gale extended the England lead before a late consolation score for the Scots, finished by Ferguson. England scored once more after the hooter had sounded to run out 38-12 winners.
The final margin flatters a poor England performance and whilst winning was vital, failing to better the 42-point margin Australia opened on the Scots in round one may be decisive. England must beat Australia on Sunday to stand a chance of progression.
For the Australian’s, the pressure is off Sunday’s encounter after they edged out New Zealand in a tight affair. The opening exchanges were a furious, face-paced blur of hard tackles and lengthy runs in which neither side could assert their dominance.
The world champions made their breakthrough after ten minutes. A swift and expansive passing move was finished by Blake Ferguson who side-stepped past two Kiwi defenders before touching down. Although he missed the conversion, Australian talisman Jonathan Thurston – regarded by many as the world’s best player – returned to the side with a telling contribution; scoring his sides second three minutes later and adding the conversion to extend Australia’s lead to 10-0.
Half-time proved beneficial to the Kiwis. Three minutes after the break they registered through a powerful run from Solomone Kata, picking up from dummy-half and driving through the Aussie defence line. Shawn Johnson was unable to convert but the match was the contest that fans had hoped for.
Much like Scotland, New Zealand’s discipline let them down. Although many of the calls against the Kiwis were dubious and the referee was quick to penalise them, New Zealand should be disappointed in allowing the referee the opportunity to punish them. Capitalising on the opportunities afforded to them, Jonathon Thurston added a couple of penalties extending the Kangaroos lead to 12-4.
Shawn Johnson was back to his magic best as New Zealand launched a late charge. Kicking over the top of the Australian line he collected the ball himself and then releasing Jordan Rapana with a quick pass to score in the corner to set up a tense finish. His brilliance continued into the last seconds of the game, weaving his way to the line only to be held up.
Australia held on to win 14-8. Their second win from two secured them the first place in the Anfield final on November 23rd. New Zealand have pole position to claim the remaining spot as they face weakest side Scotland on Friday although underestimating Scottish spirit will certainly cause them difficulties. Meanwhile, England must overcome the in-form Aussies on Sunday if they hope to progress. It is all to play for in the final round with points difference a potential deciding factor for the finalists.