England's Four Nations hopes hanging by a thread
BY TOMORROW, England will know exactly what it needs to do to avoid the embarrassment of being knocked out of the Four Nations series staged on its home soil.
England has been up against it since losing by a single point to New Zealand in its opening match. Now it must not only beat Australia on Sunday night (midnight AEST) at the London Stadium, but do so by a handsome margin, to be determined by the Kiwis' score against Scotland, if it is to qualify for the final at Anfield next weekend.
It seems that only complacency of Clintonesque proportions on somebody's part can save them. The England coach, Wayne Bennett, was profoundly unimpressed by England's efforts against a plucky Scotland. He hinted at wanting to make wholesale changes, but in reality his room for manoeuvre is limited.
His three halfbacks have all had the game time he intended, without fully resolving the issue of who will play in the game that really matters. However, George Williams was good enough in the second half against the Scots last week to claim one of the vacancies.
The question then is which of Gareth Widdop and Luke Gale will dovetail best with the Wigan stand-off. Most votes would go to Widdop, but it is possible that Bennett might go the other way.
One thing that the taciturn Australian - parachuted in to try to break his home country's 10-year run of victories over England - has decided is that James Graham will play, despite injuring his knee against New Zealand two weeks ago.
He was missed last week and will provide a focus for the aggression England must summon up if it is to beat the Aussies for the first time since the Shaun Long-inspired triumph in 2006.
England might have hoped to catch Australia in a transitional phase this time, but there are few signs of obvious weaknesses. Just to add an extra hint of spice, several of the key players, not to mention the coach, Mal Meninga, owe much of their success to the tutelege of Bennett in their formative years.
He has been criticised for his monosyllabic disdain for press conferences, but if England does manage its unlikely win this weekend nobody will be too worried about that any more.
When the Kiwis play Scotland at Workington tomorrow (6am AEST), Lewis Tierney will be on familiar turf after playing there on loan from Wigan for a spell earlier this season. Jason Robinson's son - as he dislikes being called - has been a revelation in Scotland's two games so far, exceeding even the form he showed earlier for Wigan. Danny Brough will equal the record number of Scottish caps and Ryan Brierley is fit after an ankle sprain to give their coach, Steve McCormack, extra options in midfield.
It is not realistic, however, to expect the Scots to come to the rescue of England. The chances are that the damage has already been done.