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Closing the gap?

FOUR NATIONS: ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA
Venue: DW Stadium, Wigan Date: Saturday, 31 October Kick-off: 1430 GMT Coverage: Live on BBC One and BBC Sport website from 1410 GMT; Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and BBC Sport website

Smith went over late on against New Zealand to salvage a draw for Australia
Smith went over late on against New Zealand to salvage a draw for Australia

By BBC Radio 5 live's George Riley

Last weekend's thrilling 20-20 draw between Australia and world champions New Zealand was simply the most high-quality and brutal game of international rugby league that I have seen in my lifetime.

As I walked around the restaurant at Australia's plush hotel in west London to meet the players during breakfast, Darren Lockyer popped out for an early-morning run around the block in his full-length lycras before re-emerging with a newspaper.

Lockyer cemented his legend status by surpassing Mal Meninga's all-time appearance record in that immense clash at the Twickenham Stoop.

The 32-year-old Lockyer provides the quiet, experienced head, both on the pitch and in the team hotel. But my immediate impression of this troop of Kangaroos is a youthful, excitable bunch of mates keen to right the wrongs of their 2008 World Cup failure.

Tony Smith has gone for the same approach with England after their spectacular World Cup disappointment.

Yet as England stuttered to victory in their opening game against France, the first round of Four Nations fixtures seemed to serve only to underline the vast gap in quality that the Aussies will bid to ruthlessly underline at the DW Stadium in Wigan.

"Not a lot of these guys have toured before, so to come over for a month and move around the country is incredibly exciting for them," said Aussie coach Tim Sheens.

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"Youth in a team always makes a difference. That is where the enthusiasm comes from."

I certainly sensed that on the squad's arrival in London before the Test against the Kiwis.

The players were buzzing around the capital when you may have expected a few gripes and groans about another overseas tour off the back of a sapping NRL season.

Sharing a beer with the legendary Alfie Langer a few nights before the New Zealand game, we were joined by the likes of Nathan Hindmarsh and Cooper Cronk: both overlooked by Sheens for the first match, but clearly allowed off the leash to enjoy their own time in London.

Cameron Smith, also on his first visit to England, appears to be the man the Aussies entrust with the lion's share of their media work on this tour.

A hugely likeable guy, the hooker reminded the world of his immense quality with the try that spared the Aussies' blushes against New Zealand.

Our chat quickly switched to England, who, like Australia, had a World Cup to forget.

As he's a pal of mine, I'm loathe to criticise Tony Smith, but it was hugely difficult not to do so after his team's performance down under.

Tony's plea for perspective centred on the fact that he took England to the competition as third in the world and brought them back as third in the world.

But, let's be honest, everyone thought England were so much closer to the southern hemisphere than that.

Darren Lockyer and Tim Sheens
Sheens (right) says there is pressure on England to reach the final

"I was surprised at how bad England were," said Cameron Smith, whose side hammered England 52-4 in Melbourne.

"I was expecting a lot more of them. We expected a tough game and beat them convincingly."

Tony Smith, like Sheens, has assembled a squad almost unrecognisable from the one which competed in the World Cup, pinning his hopes in youth to provide that spark of exuberance and energy.

"I expect them to be a lot harder in their own back yard, " added Cameron Smith. "It's a different squad, and a different tournament.

"Tony has had a proper clearout, ripping that squad to pieces and starting afresh with quality youngsters."

Sheens also believes England will be far more competitive this time.

"It's like cricket," he said. "When you play overseas and on different wickets, there is a lot of difference.

"Over here it is warmer and the pitches are quicker and England struggled with that.

"The touring side doesn't have much support either which is a big factor. Tony has gone for youth, too, with some really talented boys coming through."

Sheens believes that Tony Smith's gamble on youth will pay off, if only because the players he has chosen are so unfamiliar to Australia.

"I'll be honest, I don't know a lot about this England team," he said. "Neither do some of my players, but we have done our homework, mostly on individuals like Richie Myler and Sam Tomkins.

This tournament is crucial in telling us how far away England are. It is their tournament, their conditions, their crowd, and that has to be an advantage.

Australia coach Tim Sheens

"But I do think, regardless of how good people think we are, the fact that we don't know a lot about England gives them that element of surprise which is definitely an advantage."

Maybe so, but as the Aussie squad went back and forth to the buffet to stack up their breakfast plates, I wanted to attack the big question.

How damaging was England's World Cup debacle in terms of bridging that gap?

"This tournament is crucial in telling us how far away England are," said Sheens. "It is their tournament, their conditions, their crowd, and that has to be an advantage.

"The pressure is on them to make the final. That has to be their goal and it represents a fair amount of pressure for Tony and his squad under the scrutiny of their own press and fans.

"Tony was hammered by the media after the World Cup, but he wasn't badly affected as he wasn't at home when it all kicked off."

That was the kind of answer I expected from Sheens - and one I'd struggle to disagree with.

England coach Tony Smith
Smith found it difficult to shake off England's poor World Cup showing

But Tony Smith was badly affected by the World Cup backlash. It was one of the lowest periods of his life and he laid low for weeks in his Huddersfield farmhouse before pulling himself together.

He badly needs a big Four Nations.

Yet Cameron Smith points to the quality of Super League, and the success down under of Gareth Ellis, when arguing that England aren't actually as far off as people think.

"I don't think England have lost any ground on the Aussies and Kiwis," he said.

"The top four clubs in Super League play some very high-quality football and guys like Ellis can come to the NRL and be standouts, so I don't think the gap is as big as you may think after the World Cup."

The first weekend of fixtures in this Four Nations would suggest Cameron Smith is being a little kind to England. Something his team-mates are unlikely to be when the hooter sounds in Wigan...

George will be joined in the 5live sports extra commentary box by Stuart Pyke and former St Helens coach Ian Millward.



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see also
Tomkins handed start by England
29 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
Australia 20-20 New Zealand
24 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
England 34-12 France
23 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
Coach Smith blames England nerves
23 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
England potential excites Smith
21 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
Peacock says England must deliver
19 Oct 09 |  Rugby League
Smith left humbled by record loss
02 Nov 08 |  Rugby League
Australia 52-4 England
02 Nov 08 |  Rugby League
Australia v England as it happened
02 Nov 08 |  Rugby League


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