Rugby League in this country faces its most important test of modern times after tossing away victory against the Kiwis on Saturday. By losing the re-match in the semi-final at Brisbane next weekend, England would become the least successful side to leave these shores as well as, by some distance, the one guilty of the worst-ever performance in a World Cup. It would make a mockery of the frequent claims that England is improving in world terms – claims that already look pathetically threadbare after the three group matches.
To lose by 12 points to a moderate New Zealand side after leading by 16 was a shameful effort and one for which the players, coaching staff and administrators must all carry some of the blame. There is nowhere to hide for the players, whose grasp of the fundamentals of defence deserted them when they needed it most. It would be easy to make a scapegoat of Bradford's Paul Sykes, who was culpable for three of the tries, but the real break-down was a collective one.
England kept showing the Kiwis the outside and they kept running through it unopposed. A reshuffle following an injury to Paul Wellens was partly to blame, but poor old Sykes played as though he had never heard of the wing, let alone played there. That raises questions of how you prepare players for the unexpected and why everyone struggled with the even mildly unfamiliar. It was that failure to adapt that gave Tony Smith his air of deep depression after the match. He could not even put his heart and soul into complaining about the soft penalty that put New Zealand in the lead for the first time with 11 painful minutes to play. "I don't know what the rules are in this competition. I don't want a fine and I don't want sour grapes," he said. Nevertheless, the feeling in the English camp was that Isaac Luke had dived to milk a penalty from an innocuous contact with Kevin Sinfield.
That was only a small and partial excuse for a dramatic collapse, witnessed by a grim-faced chairman and chief executive of the Rugby Football League, Richard Lewis and Nigel Wood. They were in equally earnest discussion with Smith, but they and their member clubs are also part of the problem as they have failed to reduce the disproportionate influence of foreign players. While it is easy to blame Sykes and Mark Calderwood for their mistakes, they were in-form club players who deserved selection from such a thin field of candidates. "It's a very unfamiliar feeling for us," said Gareth Ellis. "It's a test of us as men as well as rugby players."
Elsewhere, Australia completed their pool games with a 46-6 victory over Papua New Guinea and await the winners of tonight's qualifier between Ireland and Fiji.
England: Wellens ; Calderwood, Sykes, Senior, Smith; Gleeson, Burrow; Morley, Higham, Peacock (capt), Jones-Buchanan, Ellis , Purdham. Interchange: Sinfield, Westwood, Hock, Langley.
New Zealand: Hohaia; Nightingale, Matai, Ropati, Vatuvei; Marshall (capt), Leuluai; Blair, Fien, Tuimavave, Mannering, Fa'alogo, Smith. Interchange: Luke, Eastwood, Kidwell, Harrison.
Referee: T Archer (Aus).