This could be one of the hardest reports I’ve had to write so as is my way I’m going to start with my build up to the day. I bought my ticket for the semis as part of the openers, semis and final package for a mere £99 as soon as they became available; a total no brainer considering I spent £90 on my ticket to watch England RU play Argentina! However I was lucky enough to find myself invited as a guest which gave me a glimpse at how the other half live. I rocked up at Wembley at 10:40 in plenty of time to meet Howard Kramer General Manager of London Skolars RL. I found myself eating roast beef an hour later in the company of two lovely GB athletes; Hammer Thrower Sarah Holt and High Jumper Steph Pywell. Sarah is a true rugby league nut having been a Bradford Bulls fan for years, it was great to chat to a knowledgeable enthusiast! It turned out that Sarah would be a good partner in crime when it came to bothering the legend that is Jason Robinson for a photo; rude not to! We were treated to some chat by a few rugby league greats, and it was lovely to eat well and be in the warm but the main event was beckoning. We made our way to our seats which it has to be said were posh! And gave us a fantastic view, the teams came out to the anthems and of course the fantastic Kiwi Haka and so the game began!
In my heart I believed England could win this game in my head I wasn’t so sure, in spite of the fact that the Kiwis hadn’t really faced a serious test. With a number of NRL experienced players as well as top class Superleague players this was probably one of the best England teams for a long time; there was a controversial but popular change in the half backs with Rangi Chase being replaced by Gareth Widdop. Kevin Sinfield kicked off and the game started as it was to carry on Jared Waerea-Hargreaves took the ball and was battered by Sam Burgess, James Graham and Brett Ferres; the tone was set.
The Kiwis were given an advantage by the referee when he gave a penalty for a ball steal, in spite of the fact that the tackle was one on one; an error with the hindsight of TV coverage. The ref then went to the video ref for a decision as Isaac Luke kicked the ball through, it was quite plain that Sam Tomkins had kicked the ball away however. A goal line drop out was the verdict giving the Kiwis a 3rd consecutive set; great defence by England meant the possession wasn’t converted to points. Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess are familiar foes down under and England’s first penalty came from a dire shoulder barge from Williams followed by a virtual assault by Waerea-Hargreaves on the English player. I do ponder at times whether some referees require a player to have a weapon on their person before they brandish a yellow card! I shouted in the ground, posh seats or not and must confess to doing the same again sitting watching on the TV in my living room, cynical and dangerous play!
Josh. Charnley very nearly made a very costly error as he flicked the ball into play in an attempt to keep England’s attack alive, straight into the hands of Kiwi captain Simon Mannering. It looked like a certain try as the Kiwis raced up the pitch, Ryan Hall however raced from the other side of the pitch to start the tackle completed by James Graham and Sam Tomkins; more great defence meant the attack came to nothing.
Another flick inside by Charnley this time caught by Sinfield worked this time as the ball moved across the field and Graham and Sam Burgess combined to send Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin in to score a great try; converted by Sinfield to give the lead to England. This felt like 2 equal teams playing Rather than the defending champions and the underdogs. England were awarded a penalty in front of the posts as Widdop was held back preventing him from taking a pass from Sam Burgess; I sometimes wonder what Jonathan Davies is watching when he commentates? It was blatant!
New Zealand scored next with what can only be described as a miracle try as the ball was hit and thrown across the line only to be flicked back by Dean Whare in mid air as he was over the touch line into the hands of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Shaun Johnson converted to take the score to England 8 New Zealand 6. Showing their respect for England Shaun Johnson took a kick at goal when they were awarded a penalty and the two teams went into the dressing rooms at 8 a piece. I have to say I was unsure who I’m going to be shouting for at Old Trafford next week, I admire so many of the Kiwi players, but, having watched again on the TV, too many cheap shots by them in that half means it’ll be Australia for me.
The teams returned and a place in the final felt totally possible; England had a tough start to the half as they had to defend 3 successive sets after a penalty and a knock on Tuivasa-Sheck capitalised and scored his second try giving the Kiwis the lead for the first time in the game; Shaun Johnson missed the conversion making that lead a mere 4 points. The theme of penalties given by England carried on, which put them under additional pressure; I’ve never played rugby of any description and would probably need to be substituted after one tackle, but years of watching rugby league tells me that defending any more than one set takes a lot out of any team. Gareth Widdop blocked the Kiwi full back after he’d kicked the ball and Johnson took the decision to kick for goal, stretching the lead to 6 points.
With 13 minutes of the half gone England had really had no possession, 80% to the Kiwis, it could be argued that 6 points wasn’t much to show for that level of possession. Sam Tomkins made a great run and was prevented by Waerea-Hargreaves from making his feet, it looked a penalty in the ground even more so on the TV, not given though. The referee didn’t see a late hit by Sam Kasiano but miraculously the linesman did, England benefitted from a repeat set after a Kiwi played at the ball before it shot back into Tomkins hands. Kevin Sinfield passed to Kallum Watkins who ran in for a great try; Sinfield uncharacteristically missed the conversion, but England narrowed the gap to 2 with 20 minutes to go.
There was what Stevo the Sky commentator referred to as a Schmozzle as Ryan Hall flicked the ball into Sonny-Bill’s hands , he passed to Tuivasa-Sheck who dropped it to have Hall pick the ball up again; this put England in a great attacking position but it was lost as Sean O’Loughlin ran ahead of the ball and knocked on. Isaac Luke made a very dangerous run through but Sam Tomkins made a great tackle and the ball was knocked on. To say the nerves were jangling was an understatement; there was zero chance of a Mexican wave as not one set of eyes will have been off the game. England to a man were playing out of their skins!
Sam Burgess who was amazing through the whole game raised English hopes further as he ran in after a repeat set to score a great try after Sinfield again made a superb pass, there was simply no stopping Burgess! A great 4 points to add to his 80 minute Man of the Match performance. A lead of 4 points for England with 12 minutes to go and Isaac Luke kicked straight over the dead ball line from the kick off, things seemed to be going England’s way! However 10 minutes is a long time in rugby league as I explained to a newbie behind me. England attacked after Sonny-Bill was wrongly adjudged to have knocked on, Ben Westwood crossed the line but knocked on as he was putting the ball down.
The Kiwis had several attacking opportunities and always looked dangerous but with 2 minutes to go it looked like it would be England who would be on the bus to Old Trafford. To say things were tense is the understatement of the year! I haven’t really been in the posh seats before but you can always see them, to a person everyone stayed and all were shouting and on their feet as the half progressed, not the usual I’m sure. Sinfield kicked down the field rather than to touch, probably a bad decision in what was a great game for him. Sonny-Bill ran ominously down the pitch and George Burgess made a high tackle giving the Kiwis another set. With 30 seconds to go Shaun Johnson broke English hearts as Sinfield rushed out and missed his tackle, Johnson then ran through the defence, the conversion was high pressure but successful by Johnson. Now then I was there yesterday and am watching the game on the TV but still close to tears as the ball sailed over the posts! Damn!
England were outstanding to a man in the semi-final and each and every one should be proud, they were 30 seconds from the World Cup final. New Zealand will meet Australia who it has to be said thrashed Fiji 64 points to nil in what was a poor semi final. The game will be awesome I’m sure, I’ve been lucky enough to see a few low stakes between the two teams and they have been a spectacle, but goodness it so could have been England. I’ve had 2 moments like that in rugby before, once when Les Catalans beat London Broncos at the Magic Weekend in the last minute and the other when Dan Hipkiss broke Saracens hearts to score for Leicester in the 2010 Premiership Final; this was the most heartbreaking! But, onwards and upwards England, Be Proud!