OPINION: The question for New Zealand rugby league is where does it go from here? Make that two questions. There is the immediate problem of the improvement that the Kiwis have to make if they are to stand an outsider's chance against the Aussies at the weekend and there is the long term fizzer of how to develop the game at home.
The Kiwis were mighty fortunate to beat England at the weekend. It was a thrilling game of league, but New Zealand prospered as much through an England choke as their own ability to seize the moment. But this is one of the big reasons why we watch sport.
We want to find out who is the man - or the woman. Shaun Edwards said in commentary: "It's not called a test match for nothing as it tests your resilience, it tests your fitness level, it tests your desire to dig that little bit deeper than most human beings."
But Edwards left one crucial part out of his lyrical summation. The final burn of a test match tests your composure, what the French call sang froid, the ability to think with absolute clarity when your muscles are screaming blue murder.
In the end the Kiwis had the greater composure. Just. Let's not forget in the final minutes that Kevin Locke also threw a wild ball into touch and Sonny Bill Williams, who took a fearful hammering from Sam Burgess but never gave up, could not hang onto a high kick.
But England were much worse. Down the stretch Kevin Sinfield missed a simple conversion, Ben Westwood dropped the ball reaching for the try line, Ryan Hall fumbled as he went for an intercept and then George Burgess committed that clueless high hit on the fourth tackle. He was the same man who gave up a needless penalty just before halftime.
More brain freeze than sang froid. It all gave the Kiwis a chance they should never have had, but typically they had the nous to take the chance.
Captain Simon Mannering said: "It was almost second nature. There were a lot of guys out there with a lot of experience and have played in a lot of big games and know what it takes to win them.
"You try to train yourself for those sorts of situations but it's never quite the same when you are out there. You just try to go through your processes and get to your spots on the field.
"There's no point in trying to come up with something new at a crucial time with not much time to go. That's what it felt like out there. A bit of second nature. Leading up to it, we did pretty much everything we are trained to do."
SHAUN JOHNSON needed some second nature, because his first instincts had not been good. Earlier Johnson had frittered away field position with panicky little kicks. At one point a high ball even bounced off his head.
Johnson knows that if he plays as badly in the final, the Aussies will be so far ahead at the end that it will no longer matter what he does in the final minute. Against England Johnson was given a second chance and was good enough to take it.
One of the great pleasures of Sunday's game was the standard of the commentary. What a contrast it made to much of the cheerleading that goes on in the union game. In the live analysis Andrew Voss, Daryl Halligan and Edwards were shrewd and balanced.
They were also funny at times. I think it was Voss who said after James Graham took an unlikely swipe at a drop goal: "He's got every kick in the book. They're all poor, but he's got every kick in the book."
Back in the studio Stephen McIvor, Richie Barnett and Awen Guttenbeil did not start gloating. Far from it. Barnett said: "England were the better team. They were outstanding."
The others agreed. It was so unexpected, you felt like applauding. Here were rational analysts who know how much New Zealand will have to improve.
Hopefully Frank Pritchard will be back because the Kiwis got beaten up by the England heavy mob and a much bigger game is needed from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who seemed shaken by a massive early hit from Sam Burgess.
Johnson needs to give Issac Luke and Kieran Foran better support. And somehow New Zealand has to plug the left side of the defence. Without Shaun Kenny-Dowall there is vulnerability at centre. Time and again England made an extra man by sending dummy runners on inside angles and looping around the back.
New Zealand's coach Stephen Kearney admitted: "I was under the desk. But we need to be better. There were parts of our game which were difficult to watch, there's no doubt about that."
BUT the Kiwis do have a few things going for them. They may have lost the last six to Australia at an average margin of 16, but they have won the two recent big ones.
And they have a bit of magic as England found out when Jason Nightingale, Ben Matulino, Luke and Dean Whare somehow all kept the ball alive for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to score.
It is hard to see sporadic magic being quite enough, but we can dream. As a teenager I stood on the terraces at Fulham and know how great a game league can be. I would like to see one huge club competition, league's equivalent of the NFL, based in Australia, with an Aussie conference and a joint England and New Zealand conference, culminating in end of season play-offs. But like a New Zealand win in the final, maybe it's just a dream.
- The Dominion Post
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