6Kiwis half Shaun Johnson came within an ace of stealing an unlikely result against world champions Australia, but he and his New Zealand side fell shot 14-8 in their Four Nations clash at Coventry.
One week after engineering a one-point win over hosts England in their tournament opener, Johnson appeared out of sorts for most of this encounter, but burst to life over the final 10 minutes to bring his side within an ace of victory.
Trailling 14-4, he chipped ahead on the final tackle of a set, regathered in midfield and spread the ball to centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who drew the last defender and sent Jordan Rapana over in the corner.
Johnson’s conversion attempt was wide, but a converted try could still snatch a draw.
With the final seconds counting down, Johnson found another chink in the Kangaroos’ defensive armour and plunged over the try-line, but was wrapped up by Australian fullback Darius Boyd and was unable to force the ball.
The thriller ended, with Gerard Beale’s in-goal speculator forced dead.
“We had a chance, but it wasn’t to be,” lamented Johnson afterwards. “We had plenty of opportunities at the end, we just came up short.
“A few things let us down, we just couldn’t build the pressure we wanted. We just have to get better.”
Australia dominated the first half, running in tries to wing Blake Ferguson and half Johnathan Thurston to lead 10-0 at the break. They probably should have been further ahead, but made more errors than their counterparts, who could not get a fair share of possession.
New Zealand’s best chance of scoring in the opening 40 minutes came, when Rapana intercepted the ball on his own try-line and set off up-field, only to be ankle-tapped by the pursuing Greg Inglis.
But the reigning Four Nations champions began the second half with far more determination, rewarded when centre Solomone Kata bullocked his way over for his first try in the black jersey.
Ultimately, the win slipped from the Kiwis’ fingers through ill-discipline. Twice, they were penalised in the tackle in front of their own posts and Thurston’s kicking boot stretched the advantage to 14-4.
Ferguson almost had another try in the right corner, but the touch judge correctly ruled the final pass forward.
New Zealand came close, but could never quite bridge the gap.
It was an improved performance on their previous two outings against Australia, though – the 16-0 loss in Newcastle in May and 26-6 in Perth three weeks ago.
The Kiwis still hold the inside running on a spot in the Four Nations final. They must beat Scotland convincingly in Workington on Friday and hope Australia can keep England at bay on Sunday.
If England win, the two final berths will likely be decided on a countback of points difference, so the margin of victory over the Scots becomes vital to New Zealand’s hopes.
Australia 14 (Blake Ferguson & Johnathan Thurston tries; Thurston 3 goals) NZ Kiwis 8 (Solomone Kata & Jordan Rapana tries)