A tense World Cup rugby league semifinal week in Brisbane looms after Kiwis captain Benji Marshall labelled England disrespectful and coach Stephen Kearney took aim at referee Tony Archer.
The Kiwis were far from happy despite storming back from 8-24 down in the first half with five unanswered tries to beat England 36-24 in Newcastle and ensure second place in pool one.
Barring a monumental upset by Papua New Guinea against Australia late tonight, a mouth-watering semifinal rematch looms on Saturday at Suncorp Stadium.
The Kiwis flew to Brisbane today, buoyed by the news their centre Steve Matai will probably be available after x-rays and scans cleared him of a serious neck injury.
Several issues gnawed away at the Kiwis, not least a woeful first half when they waved England through for four tries and earned a searing halftime rev-up from Kearney.
Marshall, bursting with pride as he captained the Kiwis for the first time, said that slow start could have been anger at England huddling in a circle rather than standing to face the haka.
“I thought it was a little bit disrespectful. A few of the boys said that as well. But if that’s how they want to approach the game, well that’s their choice,” he said.
England coach Tony Smith shot back: “Where we come from, we get in huddles. That’s what we do. In some cultures some people may find getting a tongue poked out at them quite offensive as well.”
Smith, an Australian whose brother Brian Smith coaches the Newcastle Knights, was angry with his team’s second half capitulation as giant Kiwis wing Manu Vatuvei stormed in for four tries. Vatuvei equalled the World Cup record held by Australians Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor and Briton Keith Fielding.
The result at least exorcised last year’s disastrous 0-3 series defeat in England, which the hosts won by a combined 92-36.
But the “dead rubber” match before an English-dominated crowd of 15,145 at EnergyAustralia Stadium shouldn’t carry huge weight from a semifinal perspective.
England will welcome back rested frontliners Leon Pryce, James Roby, Danny Maguire, James Graham and Abe Gardner.
Kearney was unhappy with Archer’s rulings at the tackle when big England forwards were allowed to hold down the Kiwis and slow down their play-the-ball. Assuming Australia’s top referee is reappointed for Brisbane, Kearney will seek a meeting.
“England got penalised nine times and I’m not not too sure how many of those were for holding down, but there were a number of them and I’m pretty sure you could have got a lot more (penalties) out of him,” Kearney said.
“I’m a bit mystified to find out why. We try to slow the play the ball down too but I thought the game could have been a lot better and next week will be a lot better if there is a bit more flow.”
Kearney, too, has tricks up his sleeve with regular captain Nathan Cayless, Sika Manu, Setaimata Sa and Sam Perrett set to return, and a selection headache on the bench after Bronson Harrison’s impressive comeback.
Bench hooker Issac Luke again made an impact and deserves a starting spot, while Nathan Fien could take over from Thomas Leuluai at halfback after that combination played most of the second half.
Said Fien, who scored his first test try and also copped a badly broken nose: “Our forwards really stood up in the second half and it just identifies what we can do when we play to the script and play the way the coaches want us to.
“But it’s going to be another step up next week. They rested a few players tonight and they’ll be confident they can get us with the way they started. We’ve got to get our attitude right at the start and match that intensity.”