Australia topple England in Rugby League World Cup opener

The Kangaroos have shaken off a rusty start to open their Rugby League World Cup defence with a gritty 18-4 win over England.

But in what could be a major blow to England's tournament hopes, star forward Sam Burgess limped from AAMI Park on Friday night with a first-half knee injury and failed to return.

Wayne Bennett's side were brave in repelling Australia's territorial dominance, and were aided by a new-look Kangaroos spine who struggled for cohesion in attack. But veteran Billy Slater continued his dream comeback to the game with a stirring return to the international arena, scoring a crucial go-ahead try for a four-point lead at the break.

The game remained on a knife's edge for most of the second half, and England couldn't convert their rare raids on the Australian line into points. In front of a crowd of 22,724, England utility James Roby almost reduced the lead when he burrowed his way from dummy-half but was held up over the line.

Slater, who finished with a game-high 200 metres in his first Test since 2014, also helped save another possible England try late in the game by pushing Ryan Hall into touch. Cameron Smith kicked the advantage to eight points with a penalty goal in the 76th minute, before Josh Dugan sealed the win with an 80-metre runaway try in the closing minutes.

An upset appeared on the cards when England drew first blood through Gareth Widdop's dubious long ball for winger Jermaine McGillvary in just the fourth minute. The Kangaroos had a number of opportunities to reply, including three-straight sets on the England line, but were rusty in attack and were turned away each time.

It wasn't until Matt Gillett stepped off his right foot and found space in the 23rd minute that the home side equalised, before taking the lead with Slater's try not long after. The veteran fullback dummied his way past a tiring defence in the 29th minute, giving Australia a four-point lead at the break.

McGillvary was easily England's best by almost matching Slater's 200-metre output.

Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga said his team was troubled by England's ball movement at certain periods but was pleased his team held on for the win.

"It was a really important victory for us tonight because it sets up our campaign. It puts England under a bit of pressure," Meninga said. "We could play better, us, but I was really pleased with our attitude, and certainly our effort around our defence as well."

Bennett said his team had improved from their loss to Australia in the Four Nations last year, and that it was only execution that let them down.

"Just making good decisions, making sure the pass went to the right guy," Bennett said. "But that's okay, first game tonight wasn't a destination. It was just part of a journey. So we remind ourselves of that and the next 4-5 weeks is to get all these little things right."