World number #1 New Zealand face an anxious 48 hours, if they are to progress to the Four Nations final next week.
The NZ Kiwis were held to an historic 18-18 by underdogs Scotland in their final pool game at Workington’s Zebra Claims Stadium, conceding a final-minute converted try that has them on the cusp of elimination.
They must now hope world champions Australia can defeat England tomorrow morning (NZ time) in London. The tournament hosts only need a draw to advance on points-differential.
Faced with a fired-up Scottish side, playing at their south-of-the-border home, a heavy ground and horrific weather conditions, the Kiwis, including four players on debut, never really settled into their task.
They reached half-time just 6-4 ahead, after enjoying the benefits of a strong tail-wind for the first 40 minutes.
After 20 minutes of unrewarded Scots dominance, debutant winger David Fusitu’a finally put them up with a try down the right side.
Capitalising on a Scotland mistake down their own end, the NZ side made easy metres up the middle of the park, half Shaun Johnson found Tohu Harris running off his shoulder and the rangy second rower showed Fusitu’a an open path to the line.
But Lewis Tierney answered only a few moments later, chasing down a grubber kick from Lachlan Coote behind the try-line and grounding before space ran out. Danny Brough’s conversion was wayward, leaving his team adrift at the break.
Brough signalled Scotland’s intent immediately after the restart, drilling a wind-assisted 40/20 kick that pinned the Kiwis deep in their own territory.
Somehow, the black-and-whites held them out and eventually provided Fusitu’a with another touchdown on the end of a slick back-line movement
But the Bravehearts weren’t to be denied, drawing even with a try to Ben Hellewell, converted by Brough. Then they drew a penalty by catching Manu Ma’u offside, as he regained his feet from a tackle and Brough slotted a go-ahead kick from out in front for a 12-10 lead.
Facing an upset of Trump proportions, the Kiwis seemed to stave off defeat with two tries in quick succession to centre Gerard Beale. Neither were converted into the wind and Scotland still had a chance with the final minutes counting down.
That was all they needed. Charging back onto attack, they moved the ball right, where centre Euan Aitken burst through two tacklers to score. Brough was again on target to seal the deadlock, as the final hooter sounded.
Johnson was named Man of the Match and was a threat whenever he had the ball in hand, but the individual honour will be small consolation, if the English can get up on Monday morning.
“We’re disappointed, but Scotland played really well tonight,” he said afterwards. “We wanted to get the job done, but we knew it was going to be tough in difficult conditions, but a lot of credit to Scotland.
“Every game you play in these tournaments is very tough. We can complain all we want about how we played, but they showed up with the right attitude and competed really hard.”
This was the best performance ever from a “fourth team” at the Four Nations and suggests the big three cannot rest on their laurels as the game spreads internationally.
As the starting winger, Fusitu’a was always dangerous on debut, but fellow newcomers Joseph Tapine, James Fisher-Harris and Te Maire Martin were forced to come off the bench under fire.
They probably enjoyed their best moment, when Martin and young fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak were part of the lead-up to Beale’s second try, DWZ providing the final pass.
Martin came onto the field, when veteran Thomas Leuluai ominously headed to the sideline clutching a broken jaw.
“I suppose that was a welcome to coaching,” reflected new Kiwis coach David Kidwell. “I thought we did well to get back into the game, with the conditions here suited to Scotland’s style of play.
“We’ve got some disappointed players in there, but we just have to move on and make sure we recover well.”
NZ Kiwis 18 (David Fusitu’a 2 & Gerard Beale 2 tries; Issac Luke goal) Scotland 18 (Lewis Tierney, Ben Hellewell & Euan Aitken tries; Danny Brough 3 goals)