Rugby League World Cup: Australia wobble past England in scrappy affair to open title defence

Australia 18 England 4

Jake Trbojevic faces a nervous wait over a potentially lengthy pectoral injury while Sam Burgess will struggle to be fit for England's sudden-death World Cup games after limping off with a knee injury as a rusty Australia wobbled past Wayne Bennett's men in Melbourne.

Both Australia coach Mal Meninga and England counterpart Bennett could be counting the cost of a scrappy yet intense World Cup opener, won by Australia 18-4 at AAMI Park on Friday night.

The England coach confirmed the South Sydney star suffered a medial ligament injury in the first half of the Kangaroos' unconvincing win while Trbojevic's tournament might be over with implications for his NRL pre-season after being sent to hospital.

"It could be a pec injury which as we know can be serious so we'll see how it goes with the scan," Meninga said.

But Bennett seemed unperturbed about the prospect of ruling out England's talisman from the rest of the tournament.

"Sam's done a medial by the look of it so it might be three to four weeks," Bennett said. 

"We've got a quality footy team here, Sam's always going to be a loss for any footy team and we managed without him for 60 minutes and didn't seem to lose much momentum. We've got a quality squad so we just put another player in and get on with it."

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The injuries were the main talking point of the match, sealed with a late Cameron Smith penalty and 80-metre dash by Josh Dugan in the final minute.

It ensures the Kangaroos' path to the World Cup final will exclusively be carved on home soil providing they avoid a monumental upset at the hands of France and Lebanon in their final two pool games.

Meninga is likely to play all of his squad players who didn't feature against England in the clash against France in Canberra next weekend, barring Ben Hunt, who is due to get married. It will allow Smith to break Clive Churchill's long-standing record for most consecutive appearances for Australia.

"I think both teams have got improvement in them," Meninga said. "Through the course of the competition both teams will improve.

"It was a really important victory for us tonight because it sets up our campaign and I guess puts England under a bit of pressure. We could play better, yes. But I was really pleased with our attitude and defence."

Smith praised the one referee format used in international matches as first-half tries to Matt Gillett and Billy Slater within the space of six first-half minutes preceded 46 minutes of scoreless action.

England's Sam Burgess and Australia's Matt Gillett and Jordan McLean contest as Burgess injures sustains an injury. Picture: AAP Image/ Julian Smith

England's Sam Burgess and Australia's Matt Gillett and Jordan McLean contest as Burgess injures sustains an injury. Picture: AAP Image/ Julian Smith

England proved they will be no easybeats for the World Cup holders should they meet again later in the tournament and Bennett made his pleasure known.

"Tonight wasn't a destination, it was just part of a journey," Bennett said. "We have to remind ourselves of that. The biggest challenge is to get the bad habits out of him. Compared to here and London there's no comparison. They were certainly in the game and they were never out of the game."

Despite their resistance, it remains 22 years since England have upset Australia in an international match and the gulf still appears a tough one to bridge for the side which primarily boasts English Super league players.

Meninga predicted on the eve of the tournament the Kangaroos would be at their most vulnerable on opening night - and he was proven right.

Perhaps it was a partial hangover for Australia's six grand finals stars from the Storm and Cowboys which told compared to an England side boasting a handful of NRL talent, all of whom finished club commitments early.

Free agent Cooper Cronk was far from his fluid best as he inches closer to sealing his future at the Roosters, uncharacteristically skewing kicks and copping a couple of heavy knocks off the ball for his trouble.

England's best Jermaine McGillvary might have been an unknown to Australian audiences before the World Cup, but he won't be for long. The rangy winger put England ahead within five minutes after latching onto a looping Gareth Widdop pass.

Jermaine McGillvary of England in action on Friday night. Picture: AAP Image/ Julian Smith

Jermaine McGillvary of England in action on Friday night. Picture: AAP Image/ Julian Smith

"England are a very good side," Smith said. "We mentioned that this week in our preparation. The talk about us being red hot favourites and a clear cut victory for the Kangaroos ... we never thought that at all."

But it was his intervention at the other end of the field that mattered most, saving at least three tries when mopping up loose balls, stalking Kangaroos attackers and pinching an intercept when Australia looked destined to score.

Australia had earlier crossed twice in quick succession after a forgettable first quarter, Gillett first diving at the legs of Jonny Lomax to score before turning provider for a swerving Slater as the six-point half-time cushion barely told the story of Australia's dominance.

Smith's penalty with just four minutes left - snapping more than 45 minutes of scoreboard inaction - iced the game for Australia before Dugan dashed 80 metres after scooping up a kick from former Dragons teammate Widdop.

Australia 18 (Matt Gillett, Billy Slater, Josh Dugan tries; Cameron Smith 3 goals) England 4 (Jermaine McGillvary try) at AAMI Park. Referee: Matt Cecchin. Crowd: 22,724. 

The Age