Hosts and defending champions Australia survived an opening-night scare as they fought back to beat England 18-4 in a thrilling start to the Rugby League World Cup on Friday.

Australia fell behind to an early Jermaine McGillvary score in Melbourne but battled back to claim an important win thanks to tries from Matt Gillett, Billy Slater and Josh Dugan.

England's disappointment was added to further by an injury to Sam Burgess - the South Sydney Rabbitohs star was withdrawn late in the first half and did not return.

Burgess was seen back on the England bench in the second period with a brace on his right knee, placing serious doubt on his participation in the rest of the tournament.

England made a flying start and were ahead inside five minutes as McGillvary collected an inspired Sean O'Loughlin flick to score in the corner.

Gareth Widdop was unable to add the extra point and it would be England's last score as the Kangaroos stormed back into the match.

Michael Morgan, David Klemmer and Slater all threatened the England line but they somehow managed to keep their lead intact.

Eventually they found a way through as Gillett took advantage of gaps in the England defence to score just after the midway point, the Brisbane Bronco having side-stepped Luke Gale.

Cameron Smith was successful with his kick and five minutes later the hosts were over again as Slater combined with Gillett to score after Australia opted to run a penalty deep in England territory.

England's half got even worse before the break as Burgess limped away from a crunching tackle, a challenge that leaves his tournament in the balance.

It did not break the visitors' spirit, though, and they laid siege on the Kangaroo line in the second half, but unlike their rivals, Australia were resolute in defence.

With six minutes remaining Ryan Hall had the line in his sights, but as he edged close to the corner he was unceremoniously cleared into touch by three Australian defenders.

As England tired Australia took full advantage, Smith kicking a late penalty, before Dugan raced the length of the pitch to touch down – James Graham unable to get back in time.