Slow start scuttles England hopes
New Zealand 24 England 10
Monday 25 October 2010
If England are to make any sort of mark on the Four Nations, they must now do so the hard way.
Some pride might have been restored and some confidence rebuilt in the second half at the Westpak Stadium on Saturday, but the fact remains that they must now beat Australia in Melbourne next week to have a realistic chance of progressing in the tournament.
That is the consequence of a first half against New Zealand in which England did not so much start slowly as fail to start at all. That tentative opening, which should have seen the Kiwis ahead by far more than their 18 points, could prove England's Four Nations epitaph. "We increased our intensity in the second half," said the England coach, Steve McNamara. "We're a pretty good team and we were always going to have a say in the game."
There was no sign of that team in a dreadful first half. There is nothing new about struggling on New Zealand soil – no British side has won there since 1992 – but there has rarely been a more one-sided 40 minutes. That was despite the Kiwis losing one of their most feared strike players, Manu Vatuvei, with a broken arm after only two minutes. But his team-mates scored two first-half tries without him and could have had another three. It was not until Shaun Kenny-Dowall claimed their third early in the second half that England finally began to play.
They finally broke out of the straitjacket of one-man rugby and looked dangerous, scoring tries in quick succession, with James Roby and Gareth Widdop crossing.
If another, from Kevin Brown, had not been disallowed for a push on Greg Eastwood, England might have conceivably pinched the game.
"But we can't give ourselves as much to do as we did in the second half," said England's new captain, James Graham. He tried hard to set a tempo, as did Gareth Ellis and Ben Westwood, but this was not a game upon which they could impose themselves.
There were some good signs. Michael Shenton has done well defensively in his short international career but this was his best game with the ball in hand. Unfortunately, he left the ground on crutches with a heavily strapped ankle and ligament damage is likely to finish his tour.
The other centre, Ryan Atkins, was also injured in a collision with a post, so that is an area where England could struggle in Melbourne.
Apart from one dropped kick, Widdop did well both at full-back and centre, while there were a few flashes of the threat that Sam Tomkins could be. On the whole, though, it was all too little and too late and it left the English camp with plenty to ponder.
Brian Smith, the vastly experienced Australian coach who is part of the England entourage, was philosophical. "Despite that slow start, we got ourselves into a position where the game was there to be won," Smith said.
In the weekend's other match, Australia were too good for Papua New Guinea at Parramatta, beating them 42-0 despite a rusty performance. Willie Tonga scored two tries and Darren Lockyer's 34th in Tests set a new Australian record.
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