A debut hat-trick from Lee Smith and a much improved second-half performance could not disguise a thoroughly uncomfortable night for England in the opening game of the rugby league World Cup.
Inspired by the ageless all-round talents of Stanley Gene, the Kumuls deservedly led at half-time. If they had not had a try disallowed for a marginal forward pass early in the second half, the biggest upset in World Cup history was on the cards.
"I don't worry too much about the scoreboard," insisted the England coach, Tony Smith. "The game is an 80-minute game and I always felt confident that we would get the right score in the end."
Thanks to the finishing of his namesake and Ade Gardner, who scored twice, England did finally get the result they needed, but they were rocked by a tremendous display from the team who were supposed to be the whipping boys of the group.
"We wanted to show that we are not here to make up the numbersand I think we did that," said thePNG coach, Adrian Lam, who has added defensive steel and organisation to his side's traditional flair with the ball. For much of the game they were the more expansive, impressive side, with Gene leading the way by combining his usual robust running with a constructive passing and kicking game.
England had already been given notice that they were in for a difficult evening by the time they took the lead after 12 minutes with Gardner's first try from James Roby's cut-out pass. Anyone expecting Kumul heads to go down, however, could not have been more wrong. Within seven minutes they were level, Rod Griffin taking Paul Aiton's pass to crash over. The PNG contingent in the crowd went suitably crazy.
England regained the lead when Smith got the first of his three from Paul Wellens' ball, with Kevin Sinfield adding a second valuable conversion from the touchline.
It was the 10 minutes on either side of half-time that suggested the Kumulscould do the unthinkable and go to the top of a group which also includes Australia and New Zealand.
Gene's pass sent Jason Chan on the perfect angle to get between KeithSenior and Rob Burrow for one try, and by the break they had forged ahead. Keith Peters' kick got away from Smith – one of the blemishes of his game – and George Keppa followed up to squeeze in at the corner.
The Kumuls carried the same confidence into the second half, but when Jason Nightingale sent David Moore in the referee, Shane Hayne, ruled the pass forward. "I thought it wasn't forward, and if we'd scored then anything could happen," Lam said. "I knew we needed one or two of those calls tonight and we just didn't get them."
England improved greatly after that let-off, scoring through Smith and Martin Gleeson to get their noses in front once more. But the Papuan woes were compounded when the clinching English try from Gardner seemed to feature a clear forward pass.
Smith's third flattered England, but the Kumuls showed their determination by scoring last, through Aiton from Peters' kick.
For England, there is much work to be done before playing Australia in Melbourne next Sunday. "But it's been good for us not to play so well, to be pretty rusty in some areas, and still find a way to come up with a victory," Tony Smith said. That is the optimistic way of looking at a contest which was far too close for comfort.
The main message to take away, though, is that England need to make fewer handling errors and miss fewer tackles if they are to have a chance in this tournament.
England: Wellens; Gardner, Gleeson, Senior, Smith; Pryce, Burrow; Peacock (capt), Roby, Graham, Ellis, Hock, Sinfield. Substitutes used: McGuire, Morley, Fa'asavalu, Wilkin.
Papua New Guinea: Wilshere; Kepa, Maori, Joe, Moore; Gene (capt), Peters; Aizue, Aiton, Exton, Costigan, Nightingale, Griffin. Substitutes used: Pora, Moni, Chan, Wabo.
Referee: S Hayne (Australia).
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