LONDON — New Zealand broke England’s heart with a last-gasp converted try to edge their gripping Rugby League World Cup semifinal 20-18 at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Tournament co-host England was 20 seconds from reaching the final until Kiwis halfback Shaun Johnson slipped his counterpart Kevin Sinfield and wrong-footed last defender George Burgess to dive across the line and make it 18-18.
Johnson held his nerve to slot the conversion, his fourth goal of the game, and punched the air before he was swamped by teammates.
“We always back ourselves if there’s enough time on the clock,” Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney said. “We were fortunate.”
The Kiwis will defend the title in the final against favorite Australia next Saturday at Old Trafford. The Kangaroos, who have played in every final since 1957, demolished Fiji 64-0 to repeat the semifinal results from the last cup in 2008.
Jarryd Hayne, who played for Fiji in the 2008 semi, scored three of Australia’s 11 tries against his old team.
The classy Australians didn’t concede a point for a third straight game, and have conceded only 22 in five matches.
“We’ve got a bit of pride in our defense the last few weeks,” said Johnathan Thurston, who scored 10 goals and a try against Fiji.
He said revenge won’t be the priority in the final against the Kiwis, who shocked the Kangaroos in Brisbane in the 2008 climax.
“We won’t be going in there with that attitude,” Thurston said. “We’ll be worrying about ourselves, preparing the right way. The Kiwis are a great side, it’s going to be a tough night for us but we’re looking forward to it.”
The first semifinal of the Wembley doubleheader, which drew about 70,000, grew into an epic from the opening kickoff. England soaked up intense Kiwis pressure, then led 8-0 before the defending champs tied the score by halftime. New Zealand went ahead 14-8, but England came back to retake the lead at 18-14 with 13 minutes to go.
England was close to putting the match away, but the Kiwis were given life in the last minute by a penalty from a high tackle on Sonny Bill Williams by George Burgess. And the individual brilliance of the Kiwis trumped England’s best team effort in years.
“We’re bitterly, bitterly disappointed,” England coach Steve McNamara said. “It’s a very cruel way to finish.”
England barely survived a New Zealand onslaught in the first dozen minutes, when the Kiwis were denied three tries by remarkable defense. When the English turned the pressure back on the Kiwis, the forwards delivered their first try. James Graham fed Sam Burgess, who sliced through two tackles and offloaded in another for Sean O’Loughlin to go over. Sinfield converted and added a penalty for 8-0 after 25 minutes.