League: Kiwis shape up for final

By Michael Brown

Papua New Guinea defenders wrap up Isaac Luke. Photo / Getty Images
Papua New Guinea defenders wrap up Isaac Luke. Photo / Getty Images

The Kiwis will head to Old Trafford tonight to watch Manchester United take on Arsenal hoping they will return in three weeks for a much more important occasion.

New Zealand navigated their way through pool play at the World Cup safely enough, with wins over Samoa (42-24), France (48-0) and Papua New Guinea (56-10 yesterday), but have failed to produce an entirely convincing performance.

They now head into the quarter-finals on Saturday morning (NZT) against either Scotland or Italy. Rather than watch Italy in person tonight, when the Italians take on Tonga, the Kiwis will head to Old Trafford, where the rugby league World Cup final will be played.

The defending champions are in reasonable shape for the knockout phase of the tournament. In the first half against Papua New Guinea, they produced their best football of the tournament and arguably the best of any side at the World Cup.

They were accurate (95 per cent completions and one error), ruthless (seven tries) and resolute (no points scored against and only six missed tackles) and restricted Papua New Guinea to nine minutes with the ball.

"I thought it was [our most complete half of the tournament]," coach Stephen Kearney said. "That was what we had worked on all week. We weren't quite sure what attitude PNG would turn up with, being out of the tournament already, but we took that away from them in the way we turned up and got the job done early."

Many stood out but Sonny Bill Williams showed why he is the name and face of this tournament with a stand-out performance.

He scored a first half hat-trick, produced 13 tackle breaks, seven offloads and four linebreaks in a man-of-the-match performance.

However, New Zealand's second half performance was much less convincing as the Kumuls kept plugging away and the 16-10 second half scoreline was illustrative.

It didn't help that they lost Thomas Leuluai (groin) for the tournament less than five minutes after he went onto the pitch or that winger Manu Vatuvei (knee) and Josh Hoffman (shoulder) also came off for injuries.

It meant they fielded a vastly altered backline by the end of the game with Williams at five-eighth, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at fullback, centres Dean Whare and Bryson Goodwin on the wings and Elijah Taylor and Alex Glenn at centre.

"With the second half, we made a few changes and that probably threw the mix of the group a bit," Kearney said. "I didn't think the second half was so good but it's pretty difficult when you get to that type of scoreline and the changes."

The Kiwis hope Vatuvei and Hoffman will be fit next weekend. Both would likely have played on against PNG in a knockout game.

Leuluai's injury also highlighted the lack of options at hooker and in the halves and five-eighth Kieran Foran was dragged with 20 minutes remaining as a precaution.

The Kiwis had assumed they would be facing Tonga in the quarter-finals, given the line-up Tonga have assembled, and either Scotland or Italy will be tricky without worrying the Kiwis too much.

They are still on course to meet England in the semifinals and Australia in the final.

Kearney still has some difficult selections but his top 17 is starting to take shape. Captain Simon Mannering, second-rower Frank Pritchard and prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will come back into the forward pack but the backline, assuming everyone is fit, is likely to stay the same as yesterday.

Australia remain favourites but the Kiwis will be difficult to beat.

"They were pretty good in that first half and, when they get on a roll it's hard to see anyone stopping them," Papua New Guinea coach Adrian Lam said.

The Kiwis hope that includes at Old Trafford.

- APNZ

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