The result was never in doubt… once Lee Smith crossed for his hat-trick. Up until that point I was pretty much bricking it for a solid seventy minutes (gosh, what an unfortunate turn of phrase). In a fantastic game to open up the World Cup England really rode their luck against a clearly pumped Papua New Guinea side, and had to overcome a 16-12 half-time deficit before finally coming good to take home a 32-22 victory. Lee Smith picked up a hat-trick on his full debut for England, and Ade Gardner picked up a brace for himself, with Martin Gleeson England’s otehr try scorer from a nicely delayed Rob Burrow pass. The Kumuls did most of their damage with an offloading game that kept England on the back foot, and Rod Griffin, Jason Chan, George Kepa and Paul Aiton were able to take advantage of some pretty lacklustre (bordering on stupid) defensive efforts for the PNG tries. Kepa’s try from a dropped bomb had given the Kumuls their half-time lead, but England were eventually able to gather momentum in the second half and closed out the game once they got their noses in front.
The game had two crucial turning points, both at the start of the second half. The first one was Jason Nightingale’s disallowed try, which if it had been allowed would have given the Kumuls an eight point lead with the kick to come. I think England would still have found a way to come back, but with the extra pressure of chasing a two-score deficit can do funny things to a team and it also would have given the Kumuls the momentum they needed going into the closing stages. Talking of momentum, the other turning point came just after England pulled level as they chased a deep kick and managed to restrict PNG to a mere three metres progress in the set. It created an advantage in field position which England basically kept up for the rest of the game, and also signified an upping of the defensive intensity that finally kept the Kumuls in check (for the most part).
England actually didn’t play particularly badly, they just didn’t play that well. In particular they made silly mistakes in their goal-line defence, and it will be worrying how the Kumuls opened them up from close range (Keith Senior in particular seemed to have lost his bearings). With England’s attacking play something just seemed a little… off. So many of Rob Burrow’s passes hit the deck and Leon Pryce started rather anonymously (he started to come goood by the end). The big difference between the two was that Papua New Guinea clearly wanted it more. This was evident from the first time they bundled Lee Smith into touch, after which they all started jumping up and down and engaging in the kind of cameraderie associated with scoring a winning try in the final minute. England just found it hard to cope with that passion and intensity in the first half. It just felt like England weren’t pushing themselves. Their finishing was also very rusty, and they could’ve (should’ve?) scored at least another four tries but for silly forward passes or running into the wrong gaps.
It wasn’t all bad though. England clearly stepped up a few gears in the second half, and apart from the disallowed try and their final score Papua New Guinea didn’t see much of the England line at all, and indeed they found it hard getting out of their half. In a game where they seemed to worryingly come off second best in the collision much of the time, Adrain Morley’s rampages down the middle were invaluable and he seemed to always knock over the first man. Danny McGuire had a good game and his running at the line seemed to cause the Kumuls more problems than Burrow and Pryce trying the same thing. The pack managed to regularly get over the gain line in defense, and even if it wasn’t in the spectacular manner that the Kumuls were going about things it still proved to be effective.
Of course, massive credit has to be given to the Kumuls. They were wrecking balls when they ran at the line, but crucially they also promoted throwing the ball around which in turn made the defenders back off of them. Indeed, the level of guile and intelligence that they showed close to the line was almost revelatory, considering we don’t often see Stanley Gene throwing scything cut-out passes too often in Super League. Willie Peters also had a good game and you would hope that he gets more game time in the NRL (who knows, maybe a Super League club would like to take a punt on him). They were able to exploit a curiously haphazard English defensive line.
The problem for Papua New Guinea is that they may have just wasted their best chance of winning a game in this tournament. Whilst they certainly pushed England very hard in the first half, once England started to get some momentum they simply could not turn it around. With all the players giving their all, you do wonder how drained they will be for the next game against New Zealand. They had clearly been targeting this game and to come so close and fail may just be a crushing blow to their esteem, and indeed once England hit the front in the second half it quickly felt like the Kumuls lost their belief. I really hope they take it to the Kiwis and the Kangaroos as well. One thing they will also be worried about is their defence out wide; five of England’s six tries came down the flank, and there’s no let-up in the quality of wingers they have to face in the next two weeks.
So overall, not the best start for either team, but I hope England have benefited from a tough game against a side that pushed them all the way. This game will undoubtedly see England written off in the Australian press (and having looked at the Sydney Daily Telegraph, all the talk is of how PNG were robbed) and if they play with that casual attitude against the Kangaroos or the Kiwis they will deserve to be. However, I think that it might just have served as a wake-up call, and they certainly won’t mind being dismissed by the Australian media in the next week. As for Papua New Guinea, I hope they haven’t put all their eggs in one basket. If they play with the same intensity against the Kiwis they should also give them a good game, and I hope they do. They need to find a way to keep it up for the whole game, and they need an improvement in the kicking game.