New Zealand 20 (Tries: Tuivasa-Sheck x2, Johnson; Goals: Johnson x4)
England 18 (Tries: O’Loughlin, Watkins, S Burgess; Goals: Sinfield x3))
Semi final time means business time. No dropped balls, no lazy passes and no silly penalties – if you’re serious about making it through to the finals, that is. The first of the double-header at Wembley saw an ‘all guns blazing’ English side head out charging against a fired-up New Zealand Kiwis outfit with a title to defend.
The English took to the pitch with a clear game plan: get physical and match-up with the Kiwis’ thunderous forward pack and they did exactly that. Sam Burgess lined up Sonny Bill Williams early on with a big hit, a precursor to opposing props James Graham and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves going head-to head-several times as well. Early on, New Zealand came within a inch of scoring when no.9 Issac Luke dived at a loose ball in the in-goal area, only to be thwarted by a well-read defensive maneuver from Sam Tomkins, who was in the right place at the right time and kicked the ball away from the Rabbitohs’ hooker’s reach.
England lock Sean O’Loughlin bought up the first points of the match shortly afterward, moments after his side almost scored in the other corner. The English were piling on the pressure and the New Zealanders were really beginning to feel it. A safe Kevin Sinfield goal only added to the great Kiwi sweat.
The Wall of White’s momentum gathered exponentially until a phenomenal and risky set of plays in the space of a few seconds from Jason Nightingale, Issac Luke and Dean Whare produced New Zealand’s first try in the name of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Nightingale made an acrobatic move in the left-hand corner, firing the ball in-field through the hands of the side for Whare to jump mid-air over the sideline and throw a flick, no-look pass behind him straight to young Roger. The Sydney City winger would later score another four-pointer right after half time.
Following referee Ben Cummins’ ruling that Sam Kasiano played at a loose ball, costing his side its possession, outside back Kallum Watkins scored. Just when it looked like things couldn’t get much worse, Sam Burgess threw in a stepping combination worthy of a light-footed centre and charged over to score the third English try of the match. After Issac Luke kicked the ball dead on the restart, it really did look like the Kiwis were about to get their boarding passes ready for a gate to Auckland. Twisting the knife further, English back-rower Ben Westwood crossed the line but dropped the ball at the crucial moment. Had he scored, that would’ve been the game … and had Ryan Hall held the football when he intercepted a pass about a minute later, he probably would have scored. That certainly would have been the end of that for the Kiwis.
But, following a loping pass from Frank-Paul Nu’uausala to Johnson, the game was flipped on its head. Johnson stepped his opposite number Kevin Sinfield and dived over the chalk for a try, evening the score. His conversion sealed the match and forced England out of a final spot they so desperately wanted at home.
England looked on in disbelief and anguish – and rightly so. They’d been more consistent, had stood up to New Zealand’s brute force up front and created more chances than they gave away. Sam Tomkins, Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hall all showed exactly what they were made of and game oh so close to going all the way. But in semi finals football, it’s about risk, courage and hairline plays. That’s where New Zealand came in, and that’s what got them through.
Player of the Match
As commentator Andrew Voss remarked, there were many contenders for this award. His choice of “about 15” may have gone a bit far, but there were at least four to five men who could’ve earned it. Sam Burgess was the Official Man of the Match, but an award to Kevin Locke or Sam Tomkins would not have been out of order.
England should hold their heads high and know they threw everything and the kitchen sink at the match. They couldn’t quite close on the chances they created and were very, very narrowly outdone by a New Zealand squad running on sheer desperation with nothing to lose. Next week, the Kiwis head north to face an Australian side that are out for revenge – for the infamous 2008 final – and have gotten progressively better throughout the tournament.