What we learned from the 2011 Four Nations
Qld and Australia are well served at full back
When newly crowned golden boot winner Billy Slater headed to the Wembley sidelines nursing a broken collarbone, England could have viewed his early exit from the tournament as opening up a major opportunity to expose Australia at the back. This did not prove to be the case. Darius Boyd was one of Australia’s strongest performers over the remainder of the tournament, emphasising the depth Australia (and Queensland) have in the number 1 jersey. In the final, Boyd was flawless under the high ball (zero errors), while running for 104 m, and contributing 1 line break, 1 line break assist and 1 try assist via throwing the last pass for the Jharal Yow Yeh try that put Australia ahead for good. Boyd was a constant threat to the England defence, chiming into the backline as the 2nd man option and using his pace and passing ability to create overlaps for his outside men.
By reproducing his excellent club form in his first opportunity to play fullback at representative level, Darius Boyd showed that the eventual departure of Billy Slater will not be felt as keenly by Queensland and Australia as might have been expected.
Tackling low can still be effective
The classic ‘copybook’ tackle around the legs has largely disappeared from the modern game. Players are coached to go high in order to wrap up the ball, stop 2nd phase play, and then begin the wrestle to slow the play the ball. Going low allows the ball carrier to get to their feet too quickly.
I’ve long been an advocate of players tackling low in certain situations, such as when close to their line or when one on one with an attacker out wide. England’s outside men used this tactic effectively to contain Uate, Yow Yeh, Lawrence and Inglis when isolated out wide. It was noticeable that Australia’s outside men struggled to break free of the defence, particularly when compared to the field day they had enjoyed a few weeks earlier against New Zealand in Newcastle. Willie Tonga in particular was able to brush off several ineffective efforts on his way to a double that day. The Australian outside backs did eventually get the better of their opposite numbers, but the tries they scored were due to hole running and the creation of overlaps rather than from missed tackles. In fact, the most memorable defensive lapse of the tournament was committed by the NRL trained Chris Heighinton, who went high on Tony Williams close to the line with embarassing results.
When England’s backs got to grips with the Aussies they brought them down – typically from the hips and below. A lesson for the NRL?
England struggle to compete for the full 80 minutes
It is judgement that must seem patronising to English listeners – “England has got the talent, but they aren’t used to the week in week out grind of the NRL. They don’t compete for the full 80 minutes”
Yet 40 years of dominance allows Aussie commentators to adopt this tone with good reason, and the last two four nations finals between these nations bear out the theory. In 2009, Australia led 18-16 after 58 minutes of the final, and this year the scores were locked at 8-8 after 56 minutes. On both occasions the Aussies sealed the win and then blew out the scoreline in the final 20 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points in 2009 and 22 in 2011. England had been hugely impressive in the 2009 final (highlighted by Sam Burgess’s amazing solo try) and looked to have the beating of the kangaroos, yet fell apart when the blowtorch was applied. In 2011 it was more a case of the scoreboard not reflecting the kangaroos dominance in the first half – once they hit the front with 20 to go the strain told and the floodgates opened.
Is the solution for more of England’s top players to head down under to the NRL?
NRL clubs will be coming back for more English talent
The NRL is an increasingly attractive proposition for top Super League stars, offering not only a higher level of competition and prestige, but also financial rewards given the current strong $AUD. James Graham is heading to the Bulldogs for 2012, and NRL clubs will be taking an interest in several other England stars, in particular Sam Tomkins and Rangi Chase.
Tomkins is the leading light in the English game. The Wigan star’s light stepping elusive running game would no doubt be well suited to the firmer Australian conditions, and he impressed against the toughest of oppositions in the test match at Wembley, with his flick pass to set up the 2nd of Ryan Hall’s tries the highlight. Tomkins has recently re-signed with Wigan until 2016, however with contracts meaning little once a player’s head has been turned, a godfather like NRL offer may have him down under sooner than that.
Rangi Chase of course started his career in Australia with the Wests Tigers and the Dragons. Since moving to Super League he has moved a long way towards filling his always evident potential. His style draws comparisons to former high school team mate Benji Marshall, and while he is not yet at the level of the Kiwi captain, his first half display at Wembley showed enough to indicate he would be a success in the NRL, particularly given the dearth of natural playmakers in the modern game.
The Lockyer/Thurston combination reigns supreme
The old adage ‘forwards win the big matches’ has long been held up as a self evident truth. Without taking away from the efforts of the Kangaroos pack, once again Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston seemed determined to prove that at the top level, it is the halves that hold the key to victory.
Thurston had a quiet finish to the NRL season, ineffective in the Cowboys embarrassing 40-8 finals loss to Manly, and was generally unable to hit top form following his perhaps precipitous return from a serious knee injury suffered in State of Origin 3. He was back to his best in the four nations, having a hand in every roos attack, virtually flawless with the boot, and deservedly took out the MOM award in both games against England. In his finale in the sport, Lockyer played the understated, steadying role that he has perfected in the latter period of his career.
The four nations final victory brought this halves combination’s record in the green and gold to 16 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. Combine that with their impressive 12-6 State of Origin win-loss record and it is clear this pairing have laid claim to being the best representative halves combination in the history of the sport. England and New Zealand will be glad to see the last of them.
 2008 World Cup Final