New Zealand 32 England22
England showed how to botch the opening of a vital test match and the Kiwis demonstrated how to go to sleep in the middle of it in the rugby league World Cup semifinal last night.
A puzzlingly limp and error-ridden first 30 minutes by the English, during which they slumped to a 16-0 deficit, was trumped only by a defensive error of alarming naivete by New Zealand. Fullback Lance Hohaia was taking invisible man lessons when England poked a simple kick through from the first tackle after a scrum _ and Danny McGuire scored an embarrassingly easy touchdown.
That saw a resurgent England claw their way back into a match that they should already have kissed goodbye.
The mistakes from both sides will have made the Australians fancy that they saw little to worry them if, as
expected, they get past Fiji in tonight's semifinal. Fumbles, faulty fielding of kicks, loose ball and poor set completion from both sides conspired to make it a bright but highly flawed match which the Kangaroos will feel poses no threat to their famed efficiency.
Even the opening try came from a misguided pass during a New Zealand raid. Unfortunately for the Lions, the ball came to Benji Marshall and Bouncing Benji darted between two defenders and got his hands free in the tackle for a simple try to winger Sam Perrett.
England struck back with a sharp backline move which had winger Ade Gardner dotting down in the corner but Manu Vatuvei managed to get Gardner's foot dragging on the sideline and the try was disallowed.
However, the English mistakes kept coming _ an overcooked kick-off and some poor handling, for example _ and the Kiwis should have had the match under control.
In that sense, coach Steve Kearney and the Kiwis management could take a bow. Their selection strategy came off after fine matches from halfback Nathan Fien and hooker Thomas Leuluai left England looking limp.
The tetchy build-up involving squabbles over the haka, secret squirrel team selections and media commitments promised a bruising and physical opening but it was a curiously mistake-ridden affair instead _ and England made most of them.
One of those mistakes was the `mystery team' strategy adopted by England coach Tony Smith. The man who complained the Kiwis stuck their tongues out too much during the haka might have wished he'd held his own tongue. His merry-go-round team had more changes than a busy Kings Cross hooker but it backfired with an insipid opening spell from the English.
The Kiwis set out their stall with a great deal more deliberation. Plenty of critics wanted Issac Luke to start at hooker instead of Leuluai and Fien has not always produced the goods at this level. But Fien played perhaps his best match in the Kiwis jersey yet. His tactical kicking, not always his strength, was deep and accurate and he got the Kiwis out of trouble more than once in a first half that saw the Kiwis ahead 16-0 after 20-odd minutes.
Leuluai, meanwhile, was all fizzing energy and sizzle from dummy half and he made telling inroads into a central defence that England felt was their strength.
Their wide defence continued to struggle and some smart work by Fien, Leuluai and Hohaia saw tries to Perrett and Hohaia himself. A perfectly timed pass from Hohaia also saw centre Jerome Ropati stretch over.
It took England half an hour to recover from their 16-0 deficit with a workmanlike try to captain Jamie Peacock but the mistakes kept falling like rain, with well-performed fullback Paul Wellens one of the prime offenders.
The Lions were finally starting to make inroads by attacking Marshall's side but their handling just would not gel. The Kiwis defence was sound, with prop Adam Blair making telling tackles and backrower Jeremy Smith, another to have his best game in a black jersey, making plenty of them.
At least, that's what happened until halfback Rob Burrow poked through that kick from the scrum. McGuire has probably had harder runs to the letterbox.
Going in the changing room to meet Wayne Bennett after leaking a try like that must have been an interesting experience for the Kiwis. So was the first 10 minutes after halftime when a greatly encouraged England ramped things up.
Still the mistakes flowed. Ropati sent the ball inside when Vatuvei, on the outside, could have scored from a Marshall-inspired breakout after a lot of English pressure.
New Zealand looked much better when Leuluai and Fien were together and they combined to put Bronson Harrison through for what should have been the telling score of the match. But Hohaia dropped a kick and Martin Gleeson scored after English pressure to make it 22-16.
A probing Fien kick on the last tackle provoked an England fumble and gifted Ropati a try. It should have been curtains but a Marshall turnover led to McGuire's second try _ and a highly uncomfortable final five minutes on 28-22, ending only when another Fien kick saw England botch the catch and Marshall had the final try.
The Kiwis had the win _ but they will not be able to give the Kangaroos quite so much latitude. Everyone knows what will happen then.
New Zealand 32 (S. Perrett, L. Hohaia, J. Ropati 2, B. Harrison, B. Marshall tries, J. Smith 3 goals, Marshall goal); England 22 (J. Peacock, D. McGuire 2, M. Gleeson tries; R. Burrow 3 goals). Halftime: 16-10.