Top-level sport is always full of “what if?” moments and Saturday’s absorbing semi-final between England and New Zealand was no exception.
What if Kevin Sinfield had slotted over a relatively easy kick following Kallum Watkins’ try? What if Ben Westwood had just held onto the ball as he stretched for the line?
What if Ryan Hall hadn’t slipped when he had a clear run to the New Zealand line? What if George Burgess had not connected with a high tackle on Sonny Bill Williams to give New Zealand a last-minute penalty?
These sort of moments can define a Test match and, sadly, none of them went England’s way as they lost to the Kiwis in dramatic style.
However, the biggest “what if?” moment came in the final play of the match, the play from which New Zealand scored their winning try.
With 20 seconds left in the game, Shaun Johnson received the ball about ten metres from the England line. Sinfield and Watkins charged out of the line to meet him, but the Kiwi half-back simply stepped out of their way and dived over the line, with the resulting kick winning the game for the defending champions and ending English dreams.
Of course, the image of English sports stars lying dejected on the turf while their adversaries celebrate victory is nothing new, but this latest heartbreak could so easily have been avoided.
Quite what was going through the mind of Sinfield and Watkins as they charged out of a previously rigid and determined England line to confront one of the world’s most elusive runners is beyond me.
Johnson is not the kind of player you charge out to, because he has the foot speed to side-step his way through anyone who comes running at him.
If he was confronted with a wall of white shirts, the story would surely have been different: there would have been nowhere for him to go. It was a rush of blood to the head and it ultimately cost England victory.
Before this, England’s defence against a previously rampant New Zealand side was fantastic. Twice they saw of three consecutive New Zealand sets without conceding points; no mean feat against a side in such remarkable try-scoring form.
It took a miraculous pass from Dean Whare, who scooped the ball back from in touch to set up Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, to open the home side up just before the break.
England didn’t have that much time in attack, but whenever they did get forward they looked very dangerous and had the New Zealand defence all at sea.
Sam Burgess put in one of the finest individual performances I have ever seen, setting up the opening try for Sean O’Loughlin after a devastating break before adding one himself after Kallum Watkins had scored to put England back in it.
England deserved the rub of the green, but it didn’t quite fall their way. All of the scenarios mentioned at the top of the piece could have easily resulted in tries that would have put England out of sight.
Add to that list another chance for Hall, who intercepted a New Zealand pass but couldn’t quite hold onto the ball when he had an unopposed 80 metre cruise to the line.
Nevertheless, English rugby league fans should be proud of their team’s performance on Saturday. We had all been hoping for that 80-minute performance that had been missing so far in the tournament and the players didn’t disappoint.
And so another England side has fallen before the final hurdle. Sinfield said before the tournament that going out in the semis would be seen as a failure, but it’s not as if we disgraced ourselves.
New Zealand are the defending world champions for a reason. They have swept aside all before them during this tournament and we took them right to the wire.
Yes, there will be groans at chances missed, but the nation should be proud of England’s efforts on Saturday.
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