England fightback fails to hide cracks

New Zealand 24 England 10
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The Independent Online

England came away from the "great fightback that might have been", wondering why it took them so long to get their Four Nations campaign up and running.

So lethargic in the first half in Wellington, Steve McNamara's men found their urgency and sense of direction in the second. Realistically, they were never going to undo the damage of the first 40-odd minutes, but they hinted at salvaging something from the wreckage.

Trailing by 18 points that could have been more, with Gareth Widdop making his second try-saving tackle, England suddenly came to life when Isaac Luke fumbled at the play-the-ball. After not creating a single chance in the first 55 minutes, they pounced on this one when James Roby's kick hit the post and he followed up to touch down.

Four minutes later, Sam Tomkins sent the impressive Michael Shenton striding away, Kevin Brown supported and Widdop finished it off. If he had not missed a simple conversion, the Kiwis would have been under even more pressure. As it was, the Englishmen thought they had a third try when Tomkins kicked for Brown, who was adamant later that he had scored legitimately.

"I felt the ball hit the ground and I couldn't believe it was disallowed," said the Huddersfield stand-off, who was penalised by the video referee for pushing Greg Eastwood out of the way. "What we didn't need was to let them go the length of the field straight afterwards."

New Zealand turned that into a clinching try courtesy of their brilliant captain, Benji Marshall, who released Jason Nightingale and then backed up to score the try. That was it for England's comeback hopes, but at least they had been competitive late in the game.

That had not been the case in that dismal first half, during which they had not an idea between them. They were outclassed, despite the Kiwis losing their most damaging back when Manu Vatuvei broke his arm making a second-minute tackle.

As if to show that they were not to be derailed by that blow, the Kiwis immediately scored on Vatuvei's wing, with Junior Sa'u capitalising on Thomas Leuluai's cut-out pass.

Marshall extended the Kiwi lead after Roby lost the ball and Sean O'Loughlin was penalised for holding down in the tackle, and they made their superiority tell when Marshall and Nightingale combined again to set up Lance Hohaia.

There was no instant improvement from England after the interval, with Shaun Kenny-Dowall's try exposing some of their worst tackling. They were looking at a demoralising defeat when Roby began a revival that leaves at least a vestige of hope against Australia next week.

"We knew it was going to be a tough competition and we've made it a bit tougher," McNamara said. "We have to beat Australia now, but we're ready for that."

The England captain, James Graham, shook off a late dose of concussion sufficiently to analyse what had gone wrong. "We started too slowly," he said, "and you can't do that against New Zealand."

Not that the Kiwi coach, Stephen Kearney, was entirely satisfied with his side's performance. "I'm satisfied with a tough Test match, but I thought we really made it hard for ourselves tonight," he said, adding ominously that New Zealand have plenty of improvement in them.

So, it is to be hoped, have England – and they need to find it very quickly in Melbourne next Sunday.

New Zealand Hohaiha; Nightingale, Kenny-Dowall, Sa'u, Vatuvei; Marshall, Fien; Blair, Leuluai, Eastwood,Mannering, Harrison, Smith. Substitutes used Luke, Matulino, Pritchard, Nuuausala.

England Widdop; Goulding, Shenton, Atkins, Briscoe; Brown, S Tomkins; Graham, Roby, Fielden, Ellis, Burgess, O'Loughlin. Substitutes used Robinson, Griffin,Westwood, J Tomkins.

Referee T Archer (Aus).

Attendance 20,681.

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