There have been some cruel late defeats at the hands of Antipodeans over the last three decades, but nothing quite like this.
England played magnificently in this World Cup semi-final, only to be beaten by a last-minute Shaun Johnson try and an injury-time conversion from the same player.
The Kiwis hung onto their trophy, at least for another week, but this was not a game England deserved to lose.
They did so through a series of events, one flowing into the other. First, George Burgess conceded a penalty with a high tackle on Sonny Bill Williams. Then, with the Kiwis camped on their try-line, the England captain, Kevin Sinfield, came charging out of the defensive line on a mission to stop Johnson.
He went low, missed his tackle and the New Zealand scrum-half was away for the equaliser, with the winning kick a formality. England could play those final two minutes a hundred times and hang on to win 99 times.
The England coach, Steve McNamara, was quick to absolve his skipper, who otherwise had a mighty game, of any culpability. “I don’t think Kevin has anything to blame himself for,” he said.
It is no consolation that it was a magnificent game of rugby league, played out with never a dull moment in front of a crowd of over 65,000 at a sun lit Wembley Stadium.
Although he admitted that he and his players were “distraught,” McNamara made manful efforts to see the bigger picture. “Sport at the highest level can be cruel,” he said. “They’ve used up every ounce of energy. But this World Cup has done tremendous things for our game.”
The truth is that, apart from a few unnecessary penalties, England could not have played much better yesterday than they did.
Inevitably, much of the early attention was on Gareth Widdop, promoted to the key pivotal role in place of the discarded, and no doubt disillusioned, Rangi Chase.
Widdop ultimately had a good game, but he and his team-mates had little to do in the first few minutes but defend. When they did commandeer a share of possession, however, England looked dangerous, especially when probing the right wing through the Wigan pair Sam Tomkins and Josh Charnley.
It was by taking play the other way, via their blue-chip NRL props, though, that they made their breakthrough. James Graham got his pass away to Sam Burgess, recently tested by a cynical third-man high tackle by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. His one-handed off-load was perfectly measured for releasing Sean O’Loughlin to score.
Sinfield added the conversion, plus a penalty when another Burgess break saw O’Loughlin pulled back before the pass could be delivered.
Eight points up and it should have been more, but England saw their lead dismantled in the 10 minutes before half-time.
Most of the damage was done by a quite extraordinary Kiwi try as they kept the ball alive desperately on the last tackle of a set. The danger seemed to have passed when the ball went over Dean Whare’s head, but he somehow kept it in play for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to touch down. A conversion and a penalty from Shaun Johnson and a fascinating match was all-square at the break.
That situation did not last long. Three minutes into the second half, Kevin Locke chimed into the attacking line, England found themselves a man short, Ryan Hall left his wing and Tuivasa-Sheck claimed his second try. Johnson missed the conversion, but landed one of a string of penalties awarded in the Kiwis’ favour by the Australian referee, Ben Cummins.
When England finally got a call in their direction, for a high shot from Williams, they exerted the pressure that should have brought them level. Graham was again involved, with Sinfield providing the final pass to bring Kallum Watkins running unstoppably on an angle. Sinfield missed a kick he would have expected to put over, but his influential game continued when he was there to provide the ball that sent Sam Burgess crashing over.
As time drained away, it looked as though the World Cup holders were on their way out, but with Williams growing in influence as the game went on, they found the big play when they needed it.
“I don’t think we played real well, but we hung in there and gave ourselves a chance,” said an honest Stephen Kearney, the Kiwi coach.
Their sheer grit and the near-miraculous way they kept the ball alive at times kept them in contention. Whether that will be enough at Old Trafford against Australia, who trounced Fiji 64-0 in the other semi-final, is a question that England fans who thought their own team was going there will want answered.
England: Tomkins; Charnley, Watkins, Cudjoe, Hall; Widdop, Sinfield; Graham, Roby, S Burgess, Ferres, Westwood, O’Loughlin. Substitutes used: Burrow, G Burgess, Hill, Ablett.
New Zealand: Locke; Tuivasa-Sheck, Whare, Goodwin, Nightingale; Foran, Johnson; Waerea-Hargreaves, Luke, Bromwich, Mannering, Williams, Taylor. Substitutes used: Nuuausala, Kasiano, Matulino, Glenn.
Referee: B Cummins (Aus).
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