Darren Lockyer, Australia’s iconic captain who has been a thorn in England’s side throughout his illustrious 17-year career, broke their hearts again in the Gillette Four Nations final.
And the 34-year-old maestro, winning a record-extending 59th cap at Elland Road in his last game before retirement, found the perfect way to sign off.
Lockyer’s last-minute try put the seal on a victory that reclaimed the Four Nations title for the Kangaroos and left Steve McNamara’s England distraught. They had genuinely believed they could end their long years in the wilderness.
The truth is that even though England…who have not won a major international tournament since the 1972 World Cup, have played well in this competition and were level at 8-8 after nearly an hour… were well beaten and deservedly so.
In fact, had Australia not had three tries disallowed by video referee Ian Smith, who also awarded England a penalty try, Australia could have been out of sight by the interval.
At least the sell-out crowd of more than 34,000 recognised Lockyer’s magnificent contribution over the years by applauding him warmly as he lifted the trophy that Australia lost to New Zealand a year ago.
‘I don’t know how I am going to replace this guy,’ said coach Tim Sheens. ‘He is a true champion.’
Lockyer himself, who has spent his entire club career with Brisbane Broncos and has never courted fame, said: ‘It is nice to be going home with a win under our belts because it is a long flight.
‘I remember thinking this is the last time I will be putting on my boots, as I sat in the dressing room before the game, and it has been a good night for me because it was a tough win. The gods were shining down on me when I scored that try but I did fluff the conversion.’
Lockyer’s half-back partner Johnathan Thurston, who had been doubtful all week with a knee injury and unable to train, combined superbly with his captain all night and edged the Man of the Match award with the high quality of his tactical and goal kicking.
Yet, Thurston was jeered as he picked up his award because it was his late, high shot on England winger Ryan Hall that prompted video referee Smith to award a penalty try three minutes before the interval.
Thurston promptly banged over a penalty goal to send the Kangeroos 8-6 in front at half time.
England still came back believing they could avenge a defeat by the Aussies at Wembley two weeks ago. But as so often, Australia have the capability to go up a gear as soon as they sense trouble.
England coach McNamara said: ‘The players are distraught. They have played well throughout the tournament and really felt they were in with a shout. They have shown tremendous spirit and determination but never quite found their rhythm tonight. ‘Opportunities were not taken and Australia are ruthless in taking their own.’
With Warrington enforcer Adrian Morley winning a record 50th cap — counting his Great Britain appearances — England had back rower Gareth Ellis fit again after injury.
But they got off to the worst possible start, Hull winger Tom Briscoe failing to gather Thurston’s high kick and Chris Lawrence sending Sam Thaiday over.
England were game enough, as always, but gave Australia too much field position and were hugely relieved when they got back on terms with Hall’s penalty try.
A Kevin Sinfield penalty levelled the scores soon after the resumption, but after Kangaroos winger Jharal Yow Yeh became their third player to have a try ruled out, the Brisbane man soon scored a legitimate one.
Australia added three more from the superb Thurston, giant centre Greg Inglis and, in the last minute, the incomparable Lockyer.
by Terence Johns