Holders and tournament co-hosts Australia kicked-off the 2017 Rugby League Cup with a hard fought 18-4 win over competition second-favourites England in Melbourne.

Tries from Matt Gillett, Billy Slater and Josh Dugan, along with 6 points from the boot of Cameron Smith, saw the 2013 winners come from 4-0 down after Jermaine McGilvary’s try had given England an early lead.

But the final scoreline made things look far more comfortable for Australia than the 80 minutes had been, with the result firmly in the balance until the dying moments.

“There is improvement to make but it was a good start” – billy slater

“We were prepared for a tough battle tonight and we certainly got that”, said Man of the Match Billy Slater.

“England shift the ball well and they make you defend. They’re a good side who will do well in this tournament.

“We were a bit scratchy in attack. There is improvement to make but it was a good start”, added the veteran full-back.

England made a dream start in Melbourne as Gareth Widdop looped a pass to right-wing McGilvary to cross the line after only four minutes. Widdop’s conversion attempt slipped just wide.

But Australia responded and forced their opponents to spend the majority of the first-half on the defensive. The pressure was rewarded after 22 minutes when second-row Gillett side-stepped Luke Gale ten metres out and drove over the line to level the score.

Cameron Smith added the extras to hand Australia a 6-4 lead.

And seven minutes later the lead was extended as Gillett drove towards the line before offloading to Slater, who went inside John Bateman to score. This time Smith failed to convert.

And England’s hopes of a comeback were dealt a blow as influential forward Sam Burgess hobbled off with a knee injury after 33 minutes.

England improved after the break and twice went close to reducing the deficit. Firstly, on 52 minutes, Jonny Lomax just failed to gather a Gale pass with England well placed inside the ten metre line.

Then on 65 minutes an uncharacteristic error by Slater, who dropped a kick on his own try-line, handed England possession in a promising area. The ball was worked to James Roby who drove over the line but was held up by Slater, redeeming his earlier error to frustrate England.

It was Australia’s chance to go close after 70 minutes as Michael Morgan kicked through a packed defence for himself on the final tackle only for Lomax to get across and beat the Australian to the loose ball and prevent a score.

Up the other end Ryan Hall was forced in to touch by three Australian defenders as he closed to within inches of the line on the left-wing.

“we are disappointed by the defeat but can take a lot from it. there is a lot more in us” – sean o’loughlin

And on 76 minutes the game was all but sealed as Smith’s penalty extended the Australian lead to 12-4.

And with England desperately chasing the game Josh Dugan intercepted a cross-field Widdop kick and ran the length of the pitch to add Australia’s third try. Smith’s successful conversion was virtually the last touch of the game to bring the score to a flattering 18-4 in Australia’s favour.

“Both sides were a bit rusty. There will be a lot of improvement from both sides”, claimed England skipper Sean O’Loughlin.

“I thought everyone [in the England team] had a real dig tonight. We had some patchy periods but the effort was good from everyone.

“We are disappointed by the defeat but can take a lot from it. There is a lot more in us.”

The competition, which is being held in Australia, New Zealand and Papa New Guinea, culminates in Brisbane on December 2nd, where tournament favourites Australia will hope to be victorious once more.

Alistair Sargent, Editor (Sport)

(-Picture, Marc)