TWENTY-ONE seconds. That’s how close England were to a place in the World Cup final.
Two more tackles would have won them the semi-final and if only one of a series of key incidents in the closing moments had gone their way, the home nation – rather than holders New Zealand – would now be looking forward to a clash with Australia at Old Trafford.
England’s autumn began with arguably their most embarrassing defeat, to Italy in a warm-up match; it ended in glorious failure, but in the cruellest of circumstances.
Neutrals and casual viewers will remember a magnificent contest which swung one way and then another and went down literally to the very last second, when Shaun Johnson converted his own try to give the Kiwis a 20-18 win.
But for England’s players, management and long-suffering fans, it will always be a case of what might have been.
If only Kevin Sinfield had converted Kallum Watkins’ second-half try.
It was the sort of kick under pressure he usually lands.
If only Ben Westwood had been able to stretch over with 10 minutes to go, or Ryan Hall had hung on to an intercept which agonisingly went to ground – near his own line, but with clear country ahead – with six left.
It would still have been England’s day if George Burgess hadn’t gone high on Sonny Bill Williams with 52 seconds on the clock.
That gave the Kiwis one last set, inside the England half.
In a nightmare scenario which will haunt England for years, Johnson got past Sinfield and the gloriously talented half-back stepped his way over just to the left of the posts to level the scores after 79 mins 39 secs and then kept his nerve to boot the goal with the game’s final act.
Coach Steve McNamara summed it up perfectly when he said: “High-level sport can be cruel and it certainly was for us.”
There were other huge moments too, of course.
Chris Hill, for example, gave away a needless penalty at the start of the second half, from which the Kiwis scored their second try to go ahead for the first time. And New Zealand’s first touchdown was a miracle score as play shifted from their left to right on the fifth tackle, then Dean Whare – with both feet in the air over the touchline – slipped out an astonishing behind the back past to put Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in.
The way the tournament had gone up to the semi-final stage, most of the 67,545 crowd probably expected the unbeaten Kiwis to roll over England.
And ultimately it would have been less painful if it had happened that way.
But when the dust clears England will be able to reflect on a tremendous performance in a wonderful contest which – in front of a national terrestrial television audience – showed rugby league in its best light.
The Kiwis for the most part didn’t reach the heights they have during their earlier matches, which is credit to England, but they found a way to win.
McNamara was naturally “distraught” at the result, but preferred to focus on how well his team had performed.
“We started the first half under extreme pressure,” said McNamara.
“We were defending our tryline and they threw everything at us, but couldn’t break us and couldn’t find a way through.
“We came through that tough period and I thought we played well in the first half.
“In the second, for the first 15-20 minutes we were under a lot of pressure and that England team showed true grit and determination, togetherness and toughness to claw their way through it and get back in front again.
“They all put their hand up and put in a brilliant performance worthy of a World Cup semi-final.”
Others will unfairly blame Sinfield for his missed tackle on Johnson, but definitely not the coach.
“I thought he was great,” he said.
“I don’t think he has got anything to blame himself about.
“He has worked his socks off and it would be very cruel to pin the blame on anybody for that result.”
McNamara’s decision to call-up Gareth Widdop at stand-off in place of Rangi Chase almost paid off.
Widdop did a steady and efficient job, allowing Sinfield to run the show – and the captain called the shots superbly. He received this reporter’s vote for man of the match.
The award went to prop Sam Burgess, who played the full game and turned in a world class display. James Graham and Sean O’Loughlin were not far behind, but as a unit, England were tremendous: tough, resilient and spirited.
O’Loughlin scored the opening try, from Sam Burgess’ offload, with Sinfield converting and making it 8-0 with a penalty.
Tuivasa-Sheck’s miracle opening try was improved by Johnson, who levelled before half-time with a penalty and then added the extras after the break, following the winger’s second.
But Sinfield provided the final pass for Watkins and then Sam Burgess to cross and it looked like being England’s day until Johnson’s late, late show.
McNamara’s contract has now expired and the semi-final could be his last as coach.
If that’s the case, he will bow out with head held high.
While admitting the devastating finale felt like the end of the world, he insisted: “There’s worse things in life.
“We should be privileged to have been part of this World Cup and such a great game of rugby league.”
Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney claimed he never felt the game was up.
He said: “I was always confident we had the ability to come up with something.
“I don’t think we played real well, but we hung in there and we gave ourselves a chance with a minute to go. They were very unfortunate, take nothing away from their performance, I thought England were outstanding.”
England: Tomkins, Charnley, Watkins, Cudjoe, Hall, Widdop, Sinfield, Graham, Roby, S Burgess, Ferres, Westwood, O’Loughlin. Used subs: G Burgess, Hill, Burrow. Unused: Ablett.
New Zealand: Locke, Tuivasa-Sheck, Whare, Goodwin, Nightingale, Foran, Johnson, Waerea-Hargreaves, Luke, Bromwich, Mannering, Williams, Taylor. Subs (all used): Nuuausala, Kasiano, Matulino, Glenn.
Referee: Ben Cummins (Australia).