England cultivated a new strain of World Cup misery by losing a match they already had won here yesterday, displaying astonishing defensive naïveté in the process. From leading 24-8 just before half-time, they conceded 28 unanswered points in the rest of the game, including a series of tries in which the Kiwis' obvious danger man, Manu Vatuvei, never had a finger laid on him.
Vatuvei finished with a New Zealand World Cup record of four tries, but even he must have been embarrassed by the ease with which he scored some of them.
England's disintegration began when Paul Wellens injured his ankle shortly before half-time. It is not that Wellens has looked remotely like his old self in this World Cup, but the reshuffle on his departure made matters far worse. In particular, Paul Sykes was all at sea on the right wing, although the first try of the Kiwis' fightback, in the time added on for Steve Matai's worrying neck injury, came from Jason Nightingale on the opposite flank.
After the break, Vatuvei twice had a stroll to a deserted try-line to bring his side level. "We're angry with ourselves," said a depressed Tony Smith, the England coach.
Something else he was angry about, although he managed to be relativelydiplomatic, was the penalty that gave the Kiwis the lead 11 minutes from time. Kevin Sinfield made minimal contact with Isaac Luke under Benji Marshall's kick, but Luke went over theatrically enough to persuade the referee, Tony Archer, effectively to award a crucial two points.
It had all been so different in the first half, when England hit the brittle Kiwis with early scores from Mickey Higham and Rob Burrow. Even the Kiwis' initial response, through Vatuvei's first try, did not seem tobe a major problem when Martin Gleeson scored direct from a scrum.
Lance Hohaia exploited another English flaw by selling a dummy – this was not a game of resolute defending – but Keith Senior's break and Burrow's support left them firmly in control. That turned out to be an illusion, leaving Smith to rue a defeat he found even more painful than the hammering by Australia last time out.
The only positive is that it is next week's semi-final, also against the Kiwis, that is most important. Smith vowed to get his troops angry – it should not be difficult.
Scotland's adventure came to an end with a 48-0 defeat by Tonga in Rockhampton, while Ireland's fun continues tomorrow with a semi-final qualifier against Fiji on the Gold Coast, with Australia awaiting the winners.
England: Wellens (St Helens); Calderwood (Wigan), Sykes (Bradford), Senior (Leeds), Smith (Leeds); Gleeson (Warrington), Burrow (Leeds); Morley (Warrington), Higham(Wigan), Peacock (Leeds, capt), Jones-Buchanan (Leeds), Ellis (Leeds), Purdham (Harlequins). Interchange: Sinfield (Leeds), Westwood (Warrington), Hock (Wigan), Langley (Bradford).
New Zealand: Hohaia (NZ Warriors); Nightingale (St George Illawarra), Matai (Manly), Ropati (NZ Warriors), Vatuvei (NZ Warriors); Marshall (Wests Tigers, capt), Leuluai (Wigan); Blair (Melbourne), Fien (NZ Warriors), Tuimavave (NZ Warriors), Mannering (NZ Warriors), Fa'alogo (South Sydney), Smith (Melbourne). Interchange: Luke (South Sydney), Eastwood (Brisbane), Kidwell (South Sydney), Harrison (Wests Tigers).
Referee: T Archer (Aus).