Brave enough, resilient enough, but technically inept, England crashed out of the World Cup by leaving themselves too much to do against New Zealand. Gifting the Kiwis a 16-point lead with as bad a first half-hour as you will see in Test rugby, England three times got back to within one score without being able to go on with the job.
It completed a miserable tournament for a side who came here with such high hopes but suffered pool-stage defeats by Australia and New Zealand and now elimination in the semi-finals. When your only victoryof the trip is an unconvincing one over Papua New Guinea, something is radically wrong.
"We came here believing we could win the World Cup, but we came up short," said the England coach, Tony Smith. "It was there for us tonight, but we put down balls that we would not normally put down and a couple of players who don't normally make errors came up with errors. But they tried really hard, and that showed in the second half." Smith, who reacted to the pressure by closing his door to the media this week, reiterated his wish to stay with his team of triers. He still has a year to run on his contract and the Rugby League's executive chairman, Richard Lewis, said he expected and wanted the Australian-born coach to fulfil it.
"He is a massive part of what we are trying to achieve and we feel we are on the right track, despite this setback," Lewis said.
Smith is unlikely to experience anything more painful than the first 20-odd minutes at the Suncorp Stadium. In such a vital game, a nervy England started by doing just about everything wrong – dropping passes, conceding stupid penalties and panicking whenever a kick came near them. The Kiwis, who made a shaky enough start themselves, could scarcely believe their luck and were ultimately obliged to take advantage.
Nathan Fien's pass went behind Benji Marshall, but the stand-off still recovered to run diagonally and send Sam Perrett over. England had chances when Danny McGuire's high kick bounced away from the Kiwi defence and Ade Gardner was tackled into the corner flag by Manu Vatuvei, but mainly it was a tale of woeful handling and flawed discipline that was bound to be punished.
Ben Westwood was penalised for a late tackle on Marshall, and sure enough Thomas Leuluai, who had a field day at dummy-half, opened the way to the line for Lance Hohaia.
When Rob Purdham put his kick-off straight into touch and the Kiwis immediately scored again through Jerome Ropati, it seemed England's dismal World Cup was set to plumb new depths. The best that can be said about them is that, from a position which was almost not salvageable, they showed some character and defiance. The introduction of Adrian Morley from the bench helped, and just before the half-hour mark Gareth Ellis managed to stand in the tackle and get the ball away to Rob Burrow, who sent his captain, Jamie Peacock, on a determined charge over the line.
Immediately before half-time, there was a moment of real vision which awakened hope in the big British contingent here. With the clock running down, Purdham picked up from the base of a scrum in his own half and kicked downfield for McGuire,onside by the narrowest of margins, to race through, take it on the first bounce and score a marvellous try.
When you do something like that – and trail by only six points after playing so badly – you can feel as though you might be fated to win, almost despite yourselves.
That was the belief England clung to at the start of the second half, but they were never slick enough to take their chances, the best of which disappeared when Gardner was rightly brought back for a forward pass from Martin Gleeson. After 56 minutes, the Kiwis stretched their lead when the excellent Fien sent Bronson Harrison through on the angle. England were still full of resolve, if not good rugby, and they drew withinrange again when Leon Pryce came off the bench and into the back line to supply the scoring pass for Gleeson.
Again England could not press home their advantage. Fien's kick got away from McGuire and Gardner for Ropati to swoop for his second.
McGuire, who caught the eye with some incisive running as well as his share of mistakes, stepped through the Kiwi defence to make it a six-point gap yet again but New Zealand were always that little bit sharper and more steady, and they clinched victory with yet another Fien kick that caused chaos on Gardner's wing, with Ropati's pass bouncing off McGuire for Marshall to touch down.
The New Zealanders will now return to Suncorp for the final next Saturday, almost certainly against Australia, who play Fiji today. The Kiwis' coach, Stephen Kearney, was sufficiently a realist to insist that they will have to improve vastly on this mixed bag of a display even to make it respectable against the world champions. "It's a fantastic achievement to reach the final, but there are a lot of areas in which we need to improve," Kearney said. "We all know in this room that that is not going to be good enough next week."
At least this strictly non-vintage group of Kiwis have the opportunity to improve. For a demoralised England, all that remains is straggling home in dribs and drabs and the inevitable post-mortems.
The logical outcome of that process is the simple verdict: not good enough. You could not fault their effort, but when fundamentals such as passing and catching are so elusive, all the effort in the world won't save you.
England: Wellens (St Helens); Gardner (St Helens), Gleeson (Warrington), Senior (Leeds), Calderwood (Wigan); McGuire (Leeds), Burrow (Leeds); Graham (St Helens), Roby (St Helens),Peacock (Leeds), Westwood (Warrington), Ellis (Leeds), Purdham (Harlequins). Interchange: Pryce (St Helens), Morley (Warrington), Higham (Wigan), Wilkin (St Helens).
New Zealand: Hohaia; Perrett, Mannering, Ropati, Vatuvei; Marshall, Fien; Cayless, Leuluai, Blair, Harrison, Fa'alogo, Smith. Interchange: Luke, Eastwood, Rapira, Manu.
Referee: S Hayne (Australia).
Tries: Perrett, Hohaia, Ropati 2, Harrison, Marshall
Goals: Smith 4
Tries: Peacock, McGuire 2, Gleeson
Goals: Burrow 3Reuse content