League: England blink first after a quick Luke

By Dylan Cleaver

Kiwis 36 England 24

Livewire hooker Issac Luke has sent a big `try-to-not-pick-me-now' message to coaches Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett ahead of this week's World Cup semifinal.

Luke and four-try Manu Vatuvei were the catalysts for the Kiwis piling on 22 unanswered points in a stirring but ultimately worthless come-from-behind victory over England.

While Vatuvei will take all the plaudits, Luke was instrumental in getting the Kiwis' beaks in front, milking a key penalty in front of the posts, kicking a couple of sideline conversions and generally harrying the English defence into error.

As for Vatuvei, dubbed `The Beast' by friend and foe alike, he became the first Kiwi to score four tries in a World Cup match, beating Robbie Paul and Lesley Vainikolo's three apiece at the 2000 tournament.

"We've got to work on the little things from the first half," a relieved Vatuvei said after the final whistle. "We didn't start well."

Despite the underwhelming circumstances of the match, Kearney would have at least gained some valuable insights:

Luke is the key to unlocking England's defence.

Benji Marshall and Thomas Leuluai are still a tenuous halves combination.

The Poms do not like trying to tackle Vatuvei.

The Kiwis' poor starts have become endemic.

In the end, though, the match counted for nothing more than bragging rights.

Tragic then, in a match of such insignificance, that Steve Matai's World Cup, and in a worst-case scenario his immediate playing future, should be placed in peril following what appeared to be a serious neck injury.

Matai left Newcastle's Energy Australia Stadium on a stretcher with a neck brace.

He was seen wiggling his fingers and apparently told an official he wanted to stay and watch the game rather than be taken to hospital.

That would indicate he might have suffered a pinched nerve rather than any spinal damage.

Certainly Kearney will be hoping Matai has a part to play next week when the Kiwis meet the same opposition in the semifinal at Brisbane.

That impending encounter was always the problem with this match.

There is too much at stake next week to leave everything on the Newcastle turf.

Key players were missing from both sides _ Nathan Cayless and Leon Pryce to name just two _ and only the most foolish of coaches would have revealed all their cards.

While nobody wants to lose a test, it didn't matter enough to boil the blood _ except for the pre-match rituals, that is.

The Kiwis came out breathing fire and brimstone but as yet there have never been points awarded for hakas.

Energy expended, they proceeded to wave England's attackers through their lines like a skilled patrolman at rush-hour.

Dummy half Mickey Higham scored after Simon Mannering and Lance Hohaia fell asleep at marker.

Rob Burrow quickly doubled the lead after big, lumbering Keith Senior swatted aside Jason Nightingale and Leuluai.

Manu Vatuvei pulled a try back after first Jerome Ropati and then Nathan Fien exposed some equally porous England defence.

Marshall and Hohaia were embarrassed by Martin Gleeson before

Hohaia made up for his miss with a jinking run for a try.

So, with less than a quarter of the match gone, five tries had been scored.

Anyone for touch footy?

Well, yes, actually. Adam Blair for starters, though his woeful attempt at stopping Burrow scoring his second wouldn't have prevented a try in touch either.

Give the Kiwis credit, though _ they pulled one back before the break and were a near-irresistible force in the second half as Luke drove his team forward, allowing Marshall and Fien the space they crave.

Indeed, Fien's contribution, broken nose and all, should not be underestimated.

It won't go down in the annals as a great test _ the farcical circumstances around the format that was always likely to throw these two opponents together twice in eight days won't allow it _ but at least it was entertaining.

New Zealand 36 (M. Vatuvei 4, L. Hohaia, J. Nightingale, N. Fien tries; I. Luke 3, J. Smith gls) England 24 (M. Higham, R. Burrow 2, M. Gleeson tries; R. Purdham 4 gls). Halftime: 14-24.

- Herald on Sunday

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