The Kiwis offered no excuses and no complaints after being knocked out of the Four Nations a week early by an English side who produced their best performance on the international stage for years.
The Kiwis beat England twice at last year’s World Cup, but the home side were a changed team and in front of a patriotic crowd of nearly 20,000, matched the Kiwis in a thunderous forward contest and proved more creative upfront.
New Zealand leaked a try to English wing Peter Fox a minute before halftime to trail 18-6 at the interval, and never looked likely to pull back three scores despite Ben Matulino scoring from almost their first real attack of the second half.
In a war of attrition, a penalty by England’s Kevin Sinfield with ten minutes to go secured the result.
“We can’t complain really,” said Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney.
“I just didn’t think we took our opportunities well enough when we were in attacking positions. But I thought the English side didn’t allow us to, they played well, which didn’t allow us to play the way we wanted to.
“I thought the English side were very good tonight, which I expected given the last 50 minutes they played against Australia. [But] we probably didn’t put our best foot forward tonight.
“We had high expectations and we don’t get to contest the final so we are disappointed.”
Stony-faced Kiwi skipper Benji Marshall said the defeat didn’t mean the Kiwis’ World Cup success last November had been a fluke.
“From the start, no one gave us a chance anyway,” he declared. “We were third favourites, a pack of nobodies, and came out first game and drew with Australia, which I thought we should have won. If we can take something out of this, we brought a lot of young players into the squad and none of them have disappointed – the senior players have disappointed more than the younger players. We still know it wasn’t a fluke, and we still knew we could win, and that’s all that matters.”
Preferring to admit their poor handling and struggle to create space for halfbacks Nathan Fien and Benji Marshall were costly, the Kiwis refused to blame French referee Thierry Alibert, but his painfully slow ruck speed cost New Zealand any hope of gaining any momentum up the middle.
Marshall said: “It was pretty hard. I just couldn’t get the interpretation right, with what he was saying. I was talking to him on the field about it gojng both ways, but to tell you the truth I couldn’t get a couple of words in here and there … it was hard to make out his interpretation.
“But I am not going to make any excuses and blame the referee. It’s a simple matter: they were good, and we were bad.”
England coach Tony Smith’s late reshuffle, pushing lock Kevin Sinfield into the unfamiliar hooking role to accomodate boom youngster Sam Burgess at 13 was inspired.
Sinfield was a clear man of the match with an industrious, pivotal performance and Burgess had a major impact in the early stages.
“Sometimes you get it right and get the plaudits, sometimes you get it wrong and get kicked to death, so i will take it tonight,” said a satisfied Smith.
He was complimentary about the Kiwis, saying they had been under-rated before the tournament began and adding: “It is a real shot in the arm for the game in the northern hemisphere, a real shot in the arm for Super League: the southern hemisphere are always favourites in our sport and to beat them to the final is a feat in itself. But we are not quite satisfied yet.”
But England are aware of the size of the task that now awaits them and their skipper Jamie Peacock was sanguine. “There’s nothing to celebrate,” he said. “There’s no champagne in the dressing room.”
England meet Australia, who defeated France in Paris earlier in the day to go through the pool stage undefeated, in Saturday’s final at the Elland Road football stadium in Leeds.
ENGLAND 20 (P Fox 2, K Eastmond tries, K Sinfield 3 convs, pen)
KIWIS 12 (B Goodwin, B Matulino tries, B Goodwin conv, pen)