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GREAT BRITAIN 4 AUSTRALIA 44

John Cleese's frazzled headmaster, explaining in the film Clockwise that "I can stand the despair, it's the hope that's intolerable", spoke a universal truth of particular relevance to sport.

It is the matches you really thought you could win, but did not, that hurt. It is a pain made all too familiar to British rugby league during an Australian hegemony that now extends over more than 30 years.

Rarely, though, has the gap between hope and outcome been so immense as in this Tri-Nations final. Elland Road buzzed with genuine optimism beforehand. Brian Noble's Great Britain had won the most recent meeting between the two sides only a fortnight ago and topped the qualifying standings. Every hint of a British break or Australian error in the opening exchanges induced a roar of anticipation.

By half-time that furore had been replaced by silent misery, collective shock beautifully summed up by leading league journalist Dave Hadfield who said: "I think I preferred the other nightmare where we lose in the last minute again."

To win, Great Britain needed to play at their very best, while keeping Australia below their peak. This was the precise opposite. Britain contributed to their own downfall through abysmal tactical kicking and indiscipline - hooker Terry Newton's pointless aggression in a tackle compounded by skipper Andrew Farrell's dissent gave Australia that psychologically vital first nudge of momentum, gifting Darren Lockyer a second-minute penalty.

But amid the disappointment at Great Britain's demise, it was possible to lose sight of the main reason for it - a truly magnificent Australian performance, built round Lockyer. Maybe the fabled men of 1982 played better than this, perhaps Wally Lewis once produced a better individual display than Lockyer's, but it is hard to imagine how.

Lockyer had a hand, or foot, in all six of Australia's first-half tries, scoring one and playing crucial direction- or angle-altering parts in the other five, as well as landing all six kicks he attempted. If the Kangaroos failed to erase such record-book landmarks as the 12 tries they scored at Swinton in 1963 or the 64 points at Sydney two years ago, it was only because they had no need. The second half was miserably inconsequential and, after its first five minutes, pointless in both senses.

Out of league's best innovation in years - a tournament that produced capacity crowds and serious contests - comes a familiar worry. British league's reflexive genuflection before all things Australia, sport's version of what in a different context and direction used to be termed cultural cringe, and Australia's introspection-inducing belief that nobody else is really worth playing, are both damaging products of days like these.

If there is genuine hope, though, it was on the fringes of the Tri-Nations. Australia and New Zealand spent their off weeks in France, where they were given much better games than expected by the national team. A real French revival would bring benefits outweighing the costs of yet another Ashes blow-out.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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