There was a touch of deja vu as New Zealand followed up their last-minute 20-18 win in last November’s World Cup semi-final with a 16-14 triumph in Dunedin that secures them a place in next Saturday’s final in Wellington.
England could yet play the Kiwis in the final but only if minnows Samoa beat defending champions Australia by fewer than eight points in the last round-robin game in Wollongong on Sunday.
Ryan Hall’s controversially disallowed try against Australia in Melbourne last Sunday will now come back to haunt England but they will also feel cruelly denied by the woodwork at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, where Gareth Widdop’s first two conversion attempts rebounded off the uprights.
“We are frustrated,” McNamara said. “We were a fingernail away last week and a width of a goalpost on a couple of occasions this week. We’ve been involved in three tremendous Test matches.
“They’re a young group and we’ve got some young players within that and to apply themselves the way they have done and to attack the competition the way they’ve done is a credit to them.
“As we speak now, we’re still in it with a chance if Samoa win but we’re desperately close.”
Needing to win by 10 points to make the final, England’s task grew after conceding the first of Jason Nightingale’s two tries inside two minutes but Hall and fellow winger Josh Charnley scored tries before half-time to keep them in contention.
Manu Vatuvei’s try early in the second half made it 16-8 and, although Hall grabbed a second to extend his record try haul to 24 in just 23 appearances, England once more came up just short.
“In the first half I felt we started to get control but New Zealand are a very good team and they hit us with a couple of sucker punches,” McNamara said.
“We came out firing at the start of the second half, Josh nearly went in at the corner and Ryan Hall got one disallowed.
“We just allowed New Zealand a couple of offloads that allowed them to get to the other end of the field a little bit too easily.
“Both teams were absolutely out on their feet. There was nothing left at the end.
“It was an unbelievable Test match. We’ll come back strongly from this.”
England spurned an opportunity to secure a draw with a last-minute kick at goal as they went for the all-important win and captain Sean O’Loughlin did not believe the 10-point target played on their minds.
“We were just going out to get the win and, if we were in a good position, we knew we might have to push the ball to get a try but we were just trying to get that win to start off with,” O’Loughlin said.
“It’s disappointing but credit to our boys. We had a great dig at them but just fell short.
“It’s out of our hands now. We wanted to get there by our own right but we’ve not done that, which is tough at the minute, but we’ll just wait and see what happens now.”
New Zealand captain Simon Mannering paid tribute to England’s battling efforts.
“They played some great footie, shifted the ball and chanced their arm and defensively put us under a lot of pressure,” he said.
“I thought we scrambled pretty well.
“We probably let some tries in that we should have stopped but we’re just happy to get the win.”