IT IS perhaps naive to think issues that have plagued England for years could be ironed out inside a couple of weeks but, then again, such is Wayne Bennett’s aura, maybe many people thought they actually would.
However, for all rugby league is a simple game, it is not that simple and, so, dejected England fans were left with a familiar sense of anti-climax once more on Saturday night.
Victory over New Zealand in their Ladbrokes Four Nations opener would have seen them put one foot into next month’s final but, despite plenty of inspirational efforts throughout Bennett’s side, not least from new captain Sam Burgess, they lacked the crucial, requisite game-management ability to get home.
They lost out to Shaun Johnson’s 65th-minute drop goal, that impish Kiwi genius who broke their hearts with 20 seconds remaining the last time he was over here in the 2013 World Cup semi-final at Wembley.
With 15 minutes to go here, England should still have found a way back into an absorbing Test match but, having initially ignored chances to level up from close range, their handling and decision-making let them down badly when it mattered most as they sought a winning try.
By the time Gareth Widdop did resort to a drop-goal effort, it was heading into the desperate final stages and he was more than 40m out, so little wonder the kick fell off target.
It could have been the same script from so many such internationals over the last three decades; not enough composure nor enough clinical expression when everything else is swirling wild around them.
Being the doyen of modern coaches, it was hoped Bennett’s influence would bring those small, marginal gains needed for England to handle such situations but it remains a work in progress.
Granted, this is only the veteran Australian’s second game in charge but there is little time for error in the international field.
Yes, England beat the Kiwis over a three Test series 12 months ago but they could afford to lose one game there. The Four Nations is another matter entirely especially if, like England do, you still have Australia to face.
Widdop, the Halifax-born stand-off who made his name in the NRL, endured a mixed afternoon.
His pass in the 42nd minute was intercepted by Johnson who sprinted 70m for a score that, when converted by the excellent full-back Jordan Kahu, put the Kiwis 12-4 up which, given their outstanding defence, already looked a severely arduous deficit to overcome.
That said, the St George-Illawarra star produced a remarkable assist to put Leeds Rhinos winger Ryan Hall over in the corner on the hour, his blind overhead cut-out flick bemusing the Kiwis, and then converted from wide out to level the game at 16-16.
On that intercept, Widdop said: “If he doesn’t make the play, Johnny Bateman goes straight through and scores.
“It was just one of those things. I obviously made the pass, he (Johnson) is quick, and not too many people are going to catch him.
“But we got back into the game after and in the end the field goal decided it.
“It was certainly a disappointing result but I think we showed some good signs particularly early on.
“We had a lot of pressure and we just couldn’t get over the line.
“Some things didn’t go our way and our discipline hurt us with penalties conceded.”
The opening period when all England got for almost half-hour domination was two Widdop penalties and a 4-0 lead did hurt them.
Johnson turned on the class, his short kicking game eventually creating six goalline drop-outs.
Although the first of two Jordan Rapana tries was the Kiwis’ only reward in the 34th minute, England’s energy levels were hit.
Huddersfield winger Jermaine McGillvary finished off following a couple of strong Tom Burgess surges in the 48th minute but Rapana exposed weak defence eight minutes later to put his side in control once more.
McGillvary spent most of the afternoon desperately trying to get out from behind his own line after those brilliant Johnson grubbers but he fared well again on his home ground.
“We played a bit dumb at times and let them back into to the game, and to lose it by one was very disappointing,” he said, as England turn their attentions to Scotland, and his Huddersfield team-mate Danny Brough, in Coventry this Saturday.
“We let them off the hook. They turned it back on us and had three or four repeat sets before they got us, and that’s what we needed to do to them.
“We can’t dwell on it. We’ve still got two more games to win to try and reach the final,” added McGillvary.
England: Lomax, McGillvary, Watkins, Sarginson, Hall, Widdop, Gale, Hill, Hodgson, Graham, Bateman, Whitehead, S. Burgess. Substitutes:T. Burgess, G. Burgess, Cooper, Clark.
New Zealand: Kahu; Nightingale, Kata, Kenny-Dowall, Rapana; Leuluai, Johnson; Bromwich, Luke, Waerea-Hargreaves, Proctor, Harris, Taumalolo. Substitutes: Brown, Taupau, Ma’u, Blair.
Referee: Robert Hicks (England)